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Spotlight Report

Polish Catholics suffer a shock

Archbishop scandal prompts scrutiny of Catholic hierarchy

By Brian Whitmore, Globe Correspondent, 4/15/2002

KRAKOW, Poland - In the bad old days, when the Roman Catholic Church in Poland was under constant assault from the Communist regime, the faithful viewed the struggle as a badge of honor and proof of their virtue. Today the church is finding its honor and virtue challenged as never before.

When Juliusz Paetz, the archbishop of Poznan and one of Poland's leading religious figures, resigned on Holy Thursday over allegations that he sexually abused young seminarians, it roiled this overwhelmingly Catholic nation.

The mushrooming scandal has shocked ordinary Poles, exposed deep divisions among Catholics, and led to unprecedented censure and scrutiny of church authorities. Previously immune from criticism, the Catholic Church here now finds itself facing demands for accountability from the democratic society it did so much to help create.

And as an ailing Pope John Paul II prepares to visit his homeland in August, the angst Catholics are feeling is especially acute in Krakow, the pontiff's former archdiocese and Poland's spiritual capital.

''I can't believe that such a thing can be true,'' said Justina Kosciolek, a student who stopped in Krakow's St. Floriana's Church, John Paul II's former parish, to pray for the pontiff's health.

''If it is true, then how can such a man become archbishop?'' Kosciolek said of Paetz.

Theologians and lay Catholics here said the church needs to come clean about the scandal, and be more open with society in the future if it is to retain the trust of a nation where it has historically enjoyed enormous esteem.

''This is a test of the church's credibility,'' said Zbigniew Pasek, who teaches religious studies at Krakow's Jagiellonian University. ''It is a crisis that could endanger what is at the core of the church - ordinary people's faith.''

The calls for change gained momentum early this month as new evidence surfaced that church officials knew about Paetz's behavior for years, but failed to intervene. Particularly disturbing for Poles was the fact that it was not the church itself that stepped in first to protect the young seminarians from an abusive archbishop, but the country's fledgling free press.

''This is the first time the Catholic Church in Poland has had to confront a democratic and pluralistic society and its media,'' said Krzysztof Kozlowski, deputy editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny. ''We have decided that we cannot be silent anymore.''

Many clergy view the scandal as an unjustified encroachment into their internal affairs, and some conservative Catholics are calling it a deliberate attack.

''It is only journalists who are making a fuss about this,'' said the Rev. Jan Czyrek, pastor at St. Floriana's, where John Paul II served as a young priest from 1949 to 1951. ''People here have trust in priests.''

The allegations against Paetz first became public on Feb. 23 when the national newspaper Rzeczpospolita ran a story asserting that ''numerous'' clerics had accused the archbishop of sexual harassment. The paper quoted unidentified priests and seminarians as saying Paetz made unannounced nighttime visits to their lodgings, often using a secret underground tunnel, cuddled them, and made other inappropriate sexual advances.

Although Paetz resigned on March 28, saying his decision was ''for the good of the church,'' he continued to vehemently deny the allegations.

''I never harassed clerics or priests,'' Paetz said when the scandal first broke. ''I would like to look in the faces of those who accused me.''

Last week, Kozlowski's newspaper, one of Poland's most respected lay Catholic publications, gave him the chance. Under a front-page banner headline reading ''Evidence,'' the Krakow-based Tygodnik Powszechny published an interview with the Rev. Tomasz Weclawski, a 50-year-old theologian at Poznan University.

In the most detailed account of the church's handling of the affair to date, Weclawski went public about his vain attempts to intervene on behalf of seminarians who had complained to him about Paetz's sexual abuse.

According to Weclawski, news of Paetz's advances began circulating in the fall of 1999, prompting the seminary's rector to confront the archbishop. When the abuse continued, Weclawski asked church officials in Poznan to intervene, but they refused.

In August 2000, Weclawski and a group of clergy and lay Catholics wrote a letter to the Vatican. Although the pope was not yet informed, the Vatican's representative in Poland, Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, asked for and received written statements from clerics alleging abuse.

''I was sure that the problem would be scrutinized and there soon would be a confrontation with the archbishop. But it never happened,'' Weclawski said.

News of the scandal began to trickle out in Poland's tabloid press last summer.

Paetz, meanwhile, was maneuvering to save his reputation. In October 2001 he met with local clergy and distributed a letter of support for him, and demanded they sign. Four priests refused and asked to be transferred out of the archdiocese.

When the editor of a Catholic newspaper in Poznan refused to print Paetz's letter, the archbishop had him fired. Meanwhile, an unidentified emissary from Krakow, a friend of John Paul II, had personally informed the pontiff about the situation.

The pope then sent two envoys to Poznan, who met with the seminarians in November and December of last year. But when no action was taken for two months, the clerics decided to take their story to the media - and the ensuing outcry led to Paetz's resignation.

''New rules of the game between society and the church are being made,'' Koslowski said. ''The church played its role very well in the fight against totalitarianism, but it has no experience functioning in a democratic and pluralistic society.''

More than 90 percent of Poland's 38.6 million citizens are Roman Catholics, and most are deeply devout. An enduring source of national pride and identity, the church has given comfort to Poles throughout centuries of foreign occupation, and provided the bulwark and moral backbone to the country's underground opposition to communism.

''Previously criticism of the church came from the enemy,'' Koslowski said. ''Now it is coming from the faithful.''

But many here say the shock of the scandal could have a positive effect by forcing the church to reform.

''Those seminarians came to Poznan to find Christ, and instead they met the archbishop,'' Pasek said. ''Now there is a chance that they will not turn their backs on the church.''

This story ran on page A8 of the Boston Globe on 4/15/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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