Police attended a church in the town of Bełchatów after being called by priests, who reported that a 13-year-old boy spat out his communion wafer.
The incident, which took place last week, has attracted days of media coverage in Poland, a deeply Catholic country but one in which the church has come under increasing scrutiny. TV crews and journalists have visited Bełchatów to cover the story, leading politicians and commentators from across the spectrum have given their views, and today the local curia criticised the priests for their actions.
According to the police, the priests believed that the boy’s desecration of the host could have been illegal under Poland’s law against offending religious sentiment by publicly insulting objects or places of religious worship. That crime, for adults at least, carries a prison sentence of up to two years.
When the boy tried to escape from the church before the police arrived, the priests reportedly “forcibly detained” him. The police, however, found no evidence of a crime by the teenager, who had reportedly eventually agreed to receive the host, after initially spitting it out and putting it in his pocket.
One of the priests told the Super Express newspaper that they only called the police after failing to get a satisfactory explanation from the boy for his actions. He noted that the incident happened just before Halloween, which is when “groups of people are hired to steal the host and desecrate it at black masses”. So “caution must be increased” at this time of year.
The priests have so far decided not to ask prosecutors to investigate the child for the crime of offending religious sentiment. But an NGO, the Centre for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behaviour, has notified prosecutors of an alleged crime by the priests themselves, whom the NGO accuses of illegally depriving a minor of liberty.
Katarzyna Lubnauer, leader of the liberal Modern (Nowoczesna) party, also condemned the priests’ actions, asking if the next step would be to ask police to impose fines on people for not attending church.
Catholic journalist Tomasz Terlikowski said that it “scared him” to hear that a teenager would treat the host in such a way, which is an “insult against God himself”. (Desecration of the host is a sin punishable by excommunication from the church.)
Przeraża mnie, że trzynastolatek wyjmuje Hostię z ust i chowa ją do kieszeni. I opowieść o bolącym zębie mnie nie przekonuje, bo nie wierzę, by jak go boli ząb to chowa ziemniaki do kieszeni. W tej sytuacji mieliśmy do czynienia z obrazą samego Boga, który w Komunii się ukrył.
— Tomasz Terlikowski (@tterlikowski) November 4, 2019
Within the church itself, however, the priests’ actions have been criticised. Jacek Prusak, a theologian at the Jesuit University in Kraków, told broadcaster TVN that the priests in Bełchatów may themselves have broken the law by “bullying and [using] violence against a minor”. Alfred Wierzbicki, an ethicist from the Catholic University of Lublin, says that the “incident gives a bad impression. A priest is not handling things [well] if he calls in the police”.
Today, the Łódź Curia, under whose authority the parish in Bełchatów falls, commented. A spokesman said that the “behaviour of the priests was simply inappropriate” and announced that the archbishop would speak with them.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.