Posters advertising a helpline, “Wounded in the Church”, that supports those affected by clerical sexual abuse have been distributed to parishes across Poland, as the church takes steps in response to revelations of clerical paedophilia.
The posters were sent to all Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic parishes through the diocesan curia. They were paid for by the Saint Joseph Foundation, established by the Polish Bishops’ Conference, which supports those abused in their youth.
Do proboszczów wszystkich polskich parafii wysłane zostały plakaty Inicjatywy „Zranieni w Kościele” i list #DelegatKEP abp. Wojciecha Polaka zachęcający do ich wywieszania.
— Ochrona Dzieci i Młodzieży (@OchronaKEP) May 22, 2020
The initiative was established in March 2019 to provide free, professional support to those who have been abused within the church. Open for three hours every Tuesday evening, the helpline (800 280 900) offers information on specialist sources of help, as well as details of how to report crimes to the appropriate state and church authorities.
The helpline received over 120 calls last year. Among them was an 82-year-old woman, who revealed that she had been abused as a teenager, reports Polsat. There are now hopes that the poster campaign will encourage more people to seek support and speak out.
The organisers also intend to soon launch a support group, run by psychotherapists, which will meet once a month in Warsaw, for people from across Poland who have suffered sexual violence in the Church.
The new poster campaign comes less than a week after a new documentary on priestly paedophilia and church cover-ups was released in Poland. The film, Hide and Seek, was the second on the subject by filmmaker brothers Marek and Tomasz Sekielski, following last year’s highly acclaimed Tell No One.
However, the new campaign is not a response to the film. It has been in preparation for several months, and was supposed to start in mid-March. But this was delayed by the coronavirus lockdown, which prevented the distribution of posters and limited church attendance, says spokesman Zbigniew Nosowski, quoted by Polsat.
As the posters were distributed, priests also received a letter from the Primate of Poland, Wojciech Polak, encouraging them to put the posters up, as well as to advertise the helpline on parish websites and social media.
In his letter, Archbishop Polak said that the scheme was “the work of lay Catholics expressing their responsibility for the community of the Church” and expressed hope that those “in the church community in which they were wounded, perhaps many years ago, should now find someone to listen, advice, and help that will enable them to recover from the trauma they experienced.”
In recent years, the Catholic church in Poland has experienced a wave of accusations of sexual abuse, as well as claims that it has deliberately avoided dealing with paedophiles in its ranks. A poll in January revealed that trust in the church has fallen faster than for any other institution over the last two years.
Last year, following the release of Tell No One, the head of Poland’s episcopate, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, apologised “to all those who were harmed”. The church established a new body and fund to support victims
However, there have been accusations that the church has not yet done enough to deal with allegations. Gądecki himself faced criticism after allegedly failing to assist an investigation into a former priest accused of molesting and raping an altar boy under his care, and who was then reemployed in Gądecki’s diocese.
The ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has also been reluctant to tackle sex abuse in the church specifically, arguing that the problem should be dealt with more broadly and that it is actually less prevalent in the church than elsewhere in society.
Last May, a PiS MEP, Ryszard Legutko, suggested that the focus on clerical child abuse was part of a campaign against the church, claiming that “cases of paedophilia among the clergy are extremely rare.”
The new documentary by the Sekielski brothers aims to show how far the issue has been covered up and neglected by both politicians and the church. The documentary appeared to have an immediate impact, with Archbishop Polak announcing within hours that he would invite the Vatican to investigate the allegations made in the film.
However, in a press release, the National Prosecutor’s Office noted that the alleged paedophile priest in the documentary had already been charged for sex offences before the film came out.
The diocesan curia in Kalisz, where the abuse and cover-up was alleged to have taken place, also issued a statement, saying it had been informed of proceedings against the priest and that he had been suspended from his duties. The diocese added that two victims in the film had come forward to the curia in February 2020, with one accepting psychological and pastoral support.
However, Tomasz Sekielski told TVN24 that this response was “as if nothing had happened”, with “no repentance” and “no apology”. He also pointed out that a state commission on paedophilia, which was promised last year by the government in response to Tell No One, still has not been formed.
His documentary has also encouraged another alleged victim to come forward: this week, the prosecutor’s office in Pleszew, near Kalisz, received a report from a man claiming he was also molested by the priest mentioned in the film.
A lawyer told TokFM that the man was prompted to file a case office as a result of the film, saying that “a traumatic memory from years ago had returned” when he watched the documentary.
Main image credit: Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta
Juliette Bretan is a freelance journalist covering Polish and Eastern European current affairs and culture. Her work has featured on the BBC World Service, and in CityMetric, The Independent, Ozy, New Eastern Europe and Culture.pl.