In 2019, the late Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to prison for allegations of sexual abuse—allegations that were later unanimously quashed by Australia’s High Court. While the fourteen months Pell spent in prison were a via crucis for Pell and for Australian Catholics, they also inspired and revitalized the local Church. A similar situation recently unfolded in Poland. The media attempted to blacken the names of two Poles who were giants of twentieth-century Catholicism, Cardinal Adam Sapieha and Pope St. John Paul II. The slander has had an unintended effect: It has led to an unprecedented mobilization of Polish Catholics in defense of the truth.
In early March, the American-owned liberal TVN 24 television station aired a documentary titled Franciszkańska 3. This film, made by journalist Marcin Gutowski, alleges that Cardinal Adam Sapieha was a sexual predator (Sapieha was the archbishop of Krakow from 1911 to 1951 who became a national hero for his organization of humanitarian aid during both world wars and his brave defense of Polish sovereignty under German occupation and Stalinist rule). The documentary also claims that Sapieha's star pupil in the Krakow seminary, Karol Wojtyła, covered up three cases of sexually abusive priests during his time as Archbishop of Krakow, from 1964 to 1978: Bolesław Saduś, Eugeniusz Surgent, and Józef Loranc.
Around the same time the documentary aired, Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek came out with the book Maxima Culpa: What the Church Is Covering Up About John Paul II. It was published by Agora Publishing, affiliated with the anticlerical, leftist daily Gazeta Wyborcza. Frustratingly, some liberal Catholic publications (such as Tygodnik Powszechny, founded by Sapieha and whose collaborators included the young Karol Wojtyła) have also jumped on the anti-papal bandwagon.
In the days preceding and immediately following the release of the book and film, Gazeta Wyborcza and liberal media like Newsweek Polska and Onet.pl published many articles with sensationalist leads, treating the assertions of Gustowski and Overbeek as indisputable truths.
I have published a comprehensive analysis of the accusations themselves. According to a detailed study of communist secret security police archives , it is uncertain if Bolesław Saduś was a child molester. As for the other two alleged cover-ups: Upon learning of Loranc’s sexual offenses, Cardinal Wojtyła suspended him and made him live in isolation in a monastery (his sanctions preceded Loranc’s arrest by communist authorities); and he expelled the third offender, Eugeniusz Surgent, incardinated in the Diocese of Lubaczów, from his diocese.
Recently,that Gutowski and Overbeek had not consulted. These documents strongly suggest that the allegations against Cardinal Sapieha were fabricated by the communist secret police. Moreover, the claim that Cardinal Sapieha was a sexual predator has already been challenged by many historians; they stress the implausibility of Sapieha molesting seminarians as a dying and bedridden 83-year-old—and that his accusers were unreliable witnesses. They also note: The fact that the communist regime did not make use of these allegations in its anti-Catholic campaign of the early 1950s implies that it considered them improbable.
In recent weeks, many Polish historians have commented on the allegations against Sapieha and Wojtyła; they have unanimously called them unsound. For example, Dr. Łucja Marek of the Institute of National Remembrance, which studies Nazi and communist crimes and whose archives were used by the churchmen’s accusers,that “Gutowski’s and Overbeek’s narrative, their means of interpretation and overinterpretation, and their selective use of documents give the impression that their writing is intended to support a specific thesis.” Why, then, were such sloppy works published by major media corporations with an ambitious marketing campaign?
I suspect that neither Gutowski nor Overbeek, nor their media patrons, are interested in historical truth. Rather, their aim seems to be to embarrass the Church in the eyes of Poles to facilitate a social revolution akin to that which occurred in Overbeek’s native Netherlands decades ago. Since 2015, the socially conservative Law and Justice party has been in power; parliamentary elections will be held in October. Is it a coincidence that since 2018, Polish films and TV specials on sexual abuse among the clergy have been released on the eve of municipal, presidential, European, and parliamentary elections? TVN 24 and Gazeta Wyborcza regularly publish pro-abortion, pro-LGBT material (a couple years ago, Wyborcza’s feminist weekly supplement ran a headline blatantly titled: “Abortion Is OK”). Perhaps they feel they need to strike at St. John Paul II, widely regarded as one of Poland’s greatest national heroes, to weaken the Church’s social influence.
In his Prison Journal, Cardinal Pell writes that he received thousands of letters in prison, all but a couple of which were supportive. He quotes numerous letters from priests who claim their congregations had swelled after he had been falsely accused and from lapsed laypeople who made their first confessions in years, incensed by the imprisonment of an innocent man.
We can observe similar dynamics in Poland. In recent weeks, numerous public opinion polls have demonstrated that the media's character assassination attempt has failed., which has played a crucial role in the defamation campaign, reveals that almost two-thirds of Poles say the recent slanders against St. John Paul II have not worsened their opinion of him. Meanwhile, the proportion of Poles claiming that they consider the late pope to be a moral after the release of the documentary and book.
April 2, the eighteenth anniversary of John Paul II’s death, was a cold, rainy day in Poland. Yetdescended upon Warsaw in a march defending St. John Paul II against slander. Turnout exceeded the organizers’ expectations in smaller cities: In Bialystok, home to 300,000 people, 4000 turned out to defend the pontiff’s good name, as did another 4000 in Rzeszow (population: 200,000), just to name a couple.
On the evening of April 2, I stood in front of 3 Franciszkańska Street, the address of the Krakow curia, amid thousands of shivering, umbrella-toting Poles praying the rosary, lighting candles, and watching a tribute concert and multimedia installation on John Paul II’s life. Encouragingly, many of them were college-aged Poles too young to remember Karol Wojtyła.
Meanwhile, Fr. Przemysław Śliwiński, press secretary of the Archdiocese of Warsaw,the anniversary of John Paul II’s death and Palm Sunday—than in recent years.
As elsewhere in the West, secularism has been making headway in Poland. However, those who dreamed of Poland becoming the next Ireland or Quebec have suffered a major upset in recent weeks. Whether Catholics and people of goodwill will harness this recently unleashed energy largely depends on them.
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist who has written for the Catholic World Report and the European Conservative, among other publications.
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Image by Levan Ramishvili via Creative Commons. Image cropped.