The Polish Bishops’ Conference: Zero Tolerance for the Crimes of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy

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We publish data on the activities of the Church in Poland concerning the prevention of sexual exploitation of minors by members of the clergy. These include assistance to victims, prosecution of perpetrators and development of prevention programs. The Catholic Church is the most advanced institution in this field in our country.

Guidelines of the Polish Bishops’ Conference – zero tolerance procedure

For the past ten years, the Polish Episcopate has taken systematic efforts to eliminate said offences in line with the “zero tolerance” policy. In 2009, Polish bishops were one of the first Churches on our continent to adopt guidelines on how to proceed in cases of sexual exploitation of minors. These guidelines were later revised in accordance with the 2011 circular of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Holy See. Guidelines for preliminary canonical investigations of allegations of acts against the sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor under eighteen years of age were adopted by the Polish Episcopate in 2014 and were approved by the Holy See. They have been in force since.

“The Church recognizes sexual abuse as grave sins, demanding an unambiguous and disciplinary response towards those who have been proven to have committed such acts. They call for the healing work of penance, both by the perpetrator and the entire Church community and for the reparation of the harm done to the victim and the community. No effort should be spared to make sure that similar situations do not occur in the future” read the Guidelines.

In June 2017, the Guidelines of the Bishops' Conference were adjusted to the amendments to the Polish Penal Code, which impose an obligation to report each case of such an offence to state law enforcement agencies. Assistance to victims as a priority The primary aspect addressed in the Guidelines is the treatment of the victims. Details are discussed in Annex 1, where we read: “Concern for victims of sexual abuse is a fundamental act of justice on the part of the Church community, which feels pain and shame for the harm done to children and young people”.

Church superiors (diocesan bishops or superiors of religious provinces) are obliged to provide spiritual and psychological assistance to the victim and, if necessary, provide legal advice and ensure a sense of security upon receipt of information about the sexual abuse of a minor. They are also obliged to take actions aimed at preventing the perpetrator from continuing the crime and to work towards restoring trust and a proper climate for the continuation of pastoral work in the ecclesiastical community.

A person (bishop’s delegate) or a commission receiving the report from the victim or his
guardians is to ensure “the maximum sense of security, show a willingness to listen with good will and accept the truth, and reassure them that by revealing their suffering they also help the Church to restore the violated moral order.”

Coordinator of the Polish Bishops’ Conference and diocesan and religious delegates for the
protection of children and young people

In June 2013, the Polish Bishops’ Conference appointed a national coordinator for the protection of children and young people. This position was entrusted to the Jesuit Fr. Adam
Żak. The scope of his duties is very broad. Among others, he is responsible for training delegates, i.e. priests responsible for receiving applications and helping victims in dioceses and religious orders. He supports the activities of persons responsible for prevention of sexual abuse of minors in Church organizational units and in the educational activities of the Church.

In addition, the duties of Fr. Żak include the development and dissemination of “quality standards” for the activities of Church institutions in the field of prevention. In addition, he develops nationwide training programs for people working with children and youth within the Church. Finally, his tasks include cooperation with the media in order to “create a favourable atmosphere for the protection of children and young people from sexual exploitation in the whole society.”

Thanks to the initiative of the coordinator for the protection of children and young people and the determination of the Episcopate, delegates for the protection of children and young people have been appointed and properly trained in each Polish diocese and many religious congregations. They are responsible for collecting reports concerning sexual abuse of minors by a priest or a religious from victims or their families as well as for organizing psychological, legal and pastoral assistance for them. There are 80 such delegates in Poland. Their names and contact data can be found on websites of most dioceses and religious orders; a full list and contact database can be found on the website of the Child Protection Centre. Apart from the delegates, 69 specialized diocesan and religious chaplains have been appointed, ready to provide spiritual and pastoral assistance to the victims and their families.

Child Protection Centre

The Child Protection Centre was set up in March 2014 under the auspices of Fr. Adam Żak SJ. Affiliated to the Ignatianum University in Krakow, the Centre develops and provides training and educational programs in psychology, pedagogy and spirituality related to the sexual abuse of minors, aimed at prevention and development of best practices for different pastoral outreach communities. The principal objective is to provide assistance in creating a safe environment for children and young people.

At the same time as the training of delegates and pastors appointed by superiors, the Child Protection Centre began systematic training for diocesan and religious priests working in pastoral care. Fr. Żak explains in an interview with the Polish Catholic News Agency: “We receive many invitations from bishops and religious superiors. In many places training concerning the protection of children and young people becomes a permanent element of formation after ordination. Moreover, many diocesan and religious seminaries offer training programs for seminarians”.

In this way, thanks to the Child Protection Centre, more than 3,000 diocesan and religious priests have so far been trained. The figure does not include religious sisters and lay people who are involved in the education of children and young people on a daily basis.

Prevention systems in dioceses and religious orders

The bishops also adopted a separate document on the principles of prevention against cases of sexual exploitation of minors that may occur in the Church. The document was adopted during the 365th Plenary Assembly of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, convened on 10–11 June 2014.

It recalls that “all the superior ecclesiastical structures for the pastoral care of children and young people, Catholic organisations, associations of educational institutions run by units of
the Church must adopt and implement specific rules, forms and structures of prevention appropriate to the various types of work with children and young people.”

At the meeting of the Council of Diocesan Bishops at Jasna Góra on 25 August 2018, it was decided that a programme of prevention against crimes of sexual exploitation of children and young people will be developed and implemented in every Polish diocese. This decision was additionally confirmed at the plenary meeting of the Episcopate in Płock on 26 September 2018.

“It is important that all those who in a given diocese or religious order have contact with children and young people be able to take adequate action in various situations, should they notice any possible risks”, explains Primate of Poland Archbishop Wojciech Polak, who is also Chairman of the Commission for the Clergy of the Polish Episcopate, in charge of these matters.

Prevention and action at the stage of priestly formation

The third annex of the Guidelines reminds us that formation for the priesthood “must not fail to adequately address the priest’s sexuality and to prepare him for a life of chastity and celibacy.” Moreover, “the formation of a proper sexual identity should be done by consciously accepting this aspect and directing it towards deeper integration with the emotional and spiritual ones”.

The document indicates that “the way to discern possible difficulties in the sexual sphere should begin already at the moment of accepting a candidate for a seminary or a religious order.”  The applicant should undergo psychological examination, in-depth interview and a test that will give the educators an insight into the level of sexual maturity and possible disorders. The document states that candidates should not be admitted to a seminary or religious institute if they are found to have “a sexual disturbance, including a deep-rooted homosexual orientation.”

At the stage of priestly formation, lectures and conferences must also address the subject of “developing mature sexuality.” This subject matter should also be taken into account in spiritual direction and other activities aimed at the development of a priest’s spiritual life.

The Church in Poland apologises

“We apologize to God, the victims of exploitation, their families and the Church community for all the harm done to children and young people and their loved ones,” wrote Polish bishops in the Position Paper of the Polish Bishops’ Conference on sexual exploitation of minors by some priests, announced on 19 November 2018. The contents of the document correspond to the Letter of Pope Francis to the People of God from a few months before.

The Polish bishops further observe: “We ask the Lord to give us light, strength and courage to vigorously combat moral and spiritual corruption, the root cause of sexual exploitation of
minors. We ask the Lord to give effect to our efforts to create an open and child- and youth-friendly environment in the Church.”

The Polish bishops admit that the problem is becoming a source of particular scandal when the perpetrators are members of the clerical state. We further read in the Position Paper: “Disappointment and indignation is all the greater and more painful because instead of caring love and companionship in seeking the closeness of Jesus, children experience violence and brutal deprivation of their dignity.”

Pastors of the Church in Poland also admit that "in order for the actions undertaken to bring the expected fruits of purification and emergence of a culture focused on the true welfare of children and young people, it is essential to unite the efforts of all members of the Church community to learn to recognize and eliminate, wherever possible, all these factors that are conducive to crime”. The bishops therefore urge that “without waiting for the necessary legal regulations, all institutions run by the Church should become pioneers of prevention”. The same appeal is made to those responsible for Catholic movements and youth organisations.

At the same time, the bishops thank “all those who, out of concern for the holiness of the Church and Her shepherds, courageously reveal sin and the crime of abuse”. Meetings the victims Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki – in response to Francis’ appeal that the presidents of bishops’ conferences meet with the victims before the meeting with the Pope in Rome in February – had a personal meeting with 28 victims of sexual abuse by clergy as children or
adolescents. They were invited by diocesan and religious curias from different parts of Poland.

The President of the Polish Episcopate emphasizes that: “Each of these meetings was important to me, each of them broadened my knowledge and made me ever more sensitive to the wrong incurred. Archbishop Gądecki observes as follows: “The meetings confirmed my conviction that the various initiatives taken so far by the Polish Episcopal Conference were right and that even more intense efforts are needed to adequatly respond to the painful facts of the past and present and to prevent similar ones in the future”.

Penance liturgies for the sins of sexual exploitation

The first such liturgy took place on June 20, 2014 in the Jesuit Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Krakow. It was attended by the Primate of Poland Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the Apostolic Nuncio in Poland Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Metropolitan of Cracow Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Bishop of Bielsko-Żywiec Roman Pindel, Bishop of Opole Andrzej Czaja, and Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow Grzegorz Ryś. The President of the liturgy, Bishop Piotr Libera said: “Ashamed and repentant, we ask for forgiveness. We ask God and
we ask people who have been wronged by priests!”

30 June 2015. Francis appealed to the national bishops' conferences to establish a Day of Prayer and Penance for the sins of sexual exploitation of minors by clergy. The Polish Bishops’ Conference in October 2016 decided to organize this Day in all Polish dioceses on the first Friday of Lent. In 2017 and 2018 such celebrations took place in most cathedrals.

The Polish Episcopate revisited the matter at its plenary meeting on 19 November 2018 and confirmed that the first Friday of Lent will be every year celebrated as the “Day of prayer of recompense for the harm done to children and young people by immorally living priests and religious and of fasting” in all Polish dioceses. This year it will take place on March 8th with the involvement of parishes, which will earlier receive liturgical aids developed by the Child Protection Centre in Cracow.

Marcin Przeciszewski / Warsaw

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