It is a scene that has horrified Poland. Filmed on a hidden camera, Anna Misiewicz confronts the priest who molested her when she was seven or eight years old. Even decades later, she tells him, she still suffers nightmares at the memory of how he touched and kissed her, and used her hands to fondle him intimately.
“I know I shouldn’t have. Some stupid passion,” the now retired priest from Topola in southern Poland, identified only as Jan A, mumbles before covering his face with his hand. “It was the devil who took his toll.” Barely able to contain her revulsion, Ms Misiewicz ends the interview, and leaves. Only then does her composure break. Viewers are left with the sound of her sobbing.
Ms Misiewicz’s story is the opening to a documentary about paedophilia in the Catholic Church that has sent shockwaves through what remains one of Europe’s most devout nations. Tell No One, by brothers Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, is not the first attempt to broach the topic of abuse and cover-ups by the Church in Poland. But its impact has been unlike any other. In the five weeks since it was released on YouTube, the documentary has been viewed more than 22m times, including 18.7m in Poland. The country’s population is just 38m.
Its graphic accounts — which echo scandals that have rocked the Church from Australia to Ireland and the US — have triggered an unprecedented crisis in one of Poland’s most important institutions. And coming five months before parliamentary elections, that will pit the ruling Law and Justice party, which portrays itself as a defender of traditional Catholic values, against centrist opponents who regard the Church’s rigid views on abortion and LGBT rights as an anachronism,the film has plunged the Church into the heart of a bitter fight over Polish identity.
“For many years the Polish Church was able to say that these [cases of paedophilia in the church] happened . . . somewhere in the west, but in Poland nothing really happened on that scale or severity,” says Lukasz Lipinski, a political commentator. “Now after the Sekielski’ film, you can see that Poland has the same problems
. . . and they will not be able to hide it any more. This is the biggest challenge the Church has faced since [Poland returned to democracy in] 1989.”
Archbishop Wojciech Polak, Poland’s primate, has apologised for ‘every wound inflicted’ and vowed to set up a fund to help victims of abuse © Reuters
Released on the eve of European elections that Poland’s warring liberal and conservative camps had already billed as a civilisational clash, the documentary has deeply divided Polish society. Tadeusz Rydzyk, a hardline cleric, branded it “a fight with the Church aimed at its destruction”. Bishop Miroslaw Milewski of Plock claimed that dealing with the issue of paedophilia in the Church would require dealing with the “lavender mafia” — a disparaging reference to homosexuals. Ryszard Legutko, an MEP from Law and Justice, dismissed it as “an attack on the right”.
“The movie is . . . a manipulation,” says Marek Gizmajer, from the Catholic Association of Journalists. “And of course, it fits into a bigger anti-Polish campaign. As Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, [the late Archbishop of Warsaw] once said: ‘If you want to destroy Poland, then you have to destroy the Church first’. That’s what this is.”
Others have taken the film’s allegations — which include the case of a priest convicted of molesting 7-year-old girls who was subsequently filmed working with youngsters — more seriously. The Polish primate, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, apologised for “every wound inflicted by people of the Church” and vowed to set up a fund to help those affected. Liberal politicians have used the scandal to call for the separation of church and state. And many opposition leaders are demanding a public inquiry. Under pressure to act, but unwilling to single out the church, Law and Justice rushed through tougher sentences for child abuse, and proposed an inquiry into paedophilia in all walks of life rather than just the church.
For an institution that has long been central to Polish identity, and one of the few sources of continuity in the country’s fractured history, it is an awkward and painful position. When Poland vanished from the map after being dismembered by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 18th century, Catholic churches were one of the few public places — unlike schools or universities — where Poles could speak their native tongue.
When the country became a satellite of Moscow during the cold war, it was again one of the key institutions that kept the dream of a return to independence alive. When Poland returned to democracy in 1989, the role that the Church — and particularly Pope John Paul II, a Pole — had played in defeating communism ensured it a position at the heart of the country’s new, free society.
Catholic worshipers celebrate the Assumption of Mary at Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, southern Poland © Reuters
More than 85 per cent of Poles identify as catholic — making it one of the Church’s strongest bastions in Europe — and for many older people, the memory of the Church’s opposition to the communist regime lives on. “We try to visit this cloister every year, and thank the Mother of God for her protection, and for helping us defeat the communist system,” says Krystyna, a retired factory worker on a pilgrimage from Radom in central Poland to Jasna Gora, one of the country’s most famous shrines to the Virgin Mary, earlier this month.
That legacy is still visible in many aspects of Polish life. A sign on the entrance to the Jasna Gora monastery — 220km south-west of the capital Warsaw — gives a glimpse into the huge cross section of society that makes an annual pilgrimage to the shrine, ranging from farmers to soldiers and post office workers to beekeepers. New roads are rarely opened without a priest in attendance. And politicians, especially on the right, are careful to court the church and its followers. When Mateusz Morawiecki became prime minister, one of his first appearances was on a religious channel.
The Church’s influence was tangible when the Sekielski brothers were trying to finance the film, which was eventually crowd-funded. “It turned out that this was a topic where finding a sponsor or a big publisher in Poland is difficult, the Church is such a powerful organisation,” says Marek Sekielski. “Everyone we pitched to said ‘it’s a great idea, a very important topic’, and then politely refused. We asked maybe seven or eight entities . . . [But] from the point of view of their business, it was too risky a topic because it touched the Church.”
Yet while the Catholic Church remains far stronger in Poland than most other countries in Europe, there are signs that its power is beginning to wane. A Pew study last year found that Poland had the largest intergenerational gapin church attendance of any of the 102 countries surveyed. While 55 per cent of adults over 40 attended church weekly, just 26 per cent of those under 40 did so.
“[The data] clearly shows that we’re facing, if not in the very near future then in the not-so-distant future, a very significant cooling of religiousness,” says Wojciech Lemanski, a priest from Lodz. “We can already see the early signs.”
Poles protest against child abuse in October, 2018. Banner reads: ‘Bishop, hiding paedophilia is a crime’
Some of the reasons for the incipient decline mirror those in western Europe:a growing lack of respect for elites and a shift towards more permissive attitudes on questions of morality.
“The discourse of the church has become less and less adequate for young people,” says Marta Kolodziejska, a sociologist from the Polish Academy of Sciences. “The mainstream of the Church in Poland is very conservative in how it interprets the Bible, and so when it tells young people that it knows what’s best for them, they say: ‘not so much’.”
Others point to the Church’s involvement in politics. Archbishop Polak said in May that it should not support a particular party. But priests in rural areas often openly back Law and Justice. “Throughout its history, whenever the Church has tried to enforce its position by reaching for . . . political power, it has lost out,” says Pawel Guzynski, of the Dominican religious order. “And it will continue to lose out, because this is not the Church’s mission.”
Part of the Church’s problem, says Radoslaw Michalski, a theologian and researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, is that after two centuries at the heart of the battle for Polish independence, it is now struggling to adapt to the free Poland that has emerged since 1989.
“The Church under communism was an island of freedom . . . it was a place you could meet [liberal dissidents such as] Adam Michnik, you could meet people who were not believers . . . but who were there because they could speak openly,” he says.
“Today . . . we don’t have any enemies around. [So] for the church moral teaching is now more important, what you should and shouldn’t do, sexual education and so on. [But]people want to be free and they see freedom not in the Catholic Church, but outside the Catholic Church.”
Among the Polish faithful there is a fear that the scandal could have similar consequences as in the Republic of Ireland, where the church’s authority has collapsed. This, in turn, has paved the way for social changes — such as the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage — that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.
In the documentary ‘Tell No One’, Anna Misiewicz confronted the priest who molested her when she was aged sever or eight
Other observers foresee less dramatic changes. “In Polish society there was always this tradition of anticlericalism. We are believers, but we are quite critical of priests. So if you look at the situation now . . . it’s not the end of the church, but rather this natural need to show that priests are human and humans are sinful,” says Michal Szuldrzynski, deputy editor of Rzeczpospolita, a centrist newspaper. “But that does not mean that the Church does not have a big problem, it does,” he adds.
The Vatican’s leading sexual abuse investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, arrived in Poland last week to discuss the issue. Yet the Polish church remains split on how to respond to the scandal. The efforts it has made so far appear, at best, halfhearted.
A report published in March by Church authorities in Poland identified cases of abuse by 382 priests, involving 625 children, between 1990 and 2018 — a figure campaigners think vastly understates the scale of the problem.
“This report [is] an empty shell,” says Father Lemanski. The Church has also been criticised for moving paedophile priests from one parish to another, rather than expelling or referring them to the police.
“If the mentality of those bishops [who don’t want to face up to the problem with paedophilia] win out then it will be a total catastrophe. But if . . . the situation is addressed in accordance with the [zero tolerance] philosophy of Pope Francis then the damage will be much smaller. But it will still be serious,” says Mr Guzynski.
“If we lose the trust of society,” he adds, “then who will listen to us?”
Filmmaker’s glare shines new light on Catholic Church
Tomasz and Marek Sekielski knew that their documentary about paedophilia in the Catholic church in Poland would have a big impact. But even they were surprised by the huge interest generated by Tell No One.
“If someone had told me it would [attract an audience of] 5m viewers, I would have been satisfied. It surely means one thing, that Polish TV never really covered [this topic], and they could have.
“I think that viewers were really shocked when they saw the pictures on screen, because it’s completely different [from just reading about it],” says Marek Sekielski.
“Gazeta Wyborcza, Oko. Press, Polityka and other news titles have written about many paedophile scandals in the Church. But the difference between the power of the message on screen and in even the best press report is enormous.”
The Sekielski’s documentary follows the launch last autumn of Clergy, a fictional film by Polish director Wojciech Smarzowski, which caused uproar in Poland for its unflattering depiction of the weaknesses and failings of the clergy, and became the third most watched film in Polish cinema history.
Mr Sekielski says that the success of the two films is an important step in the public debate about the Church in Poland. “The taboo is being broken, and that is good,” he says. “A healthy balance between the church and the state is necessary.”
The brothers plan to return to the topic again in the autumn with a shorter documentary, using material that didn’t fit into the first one. They are also planning a second full-length documentary on the Church that they plan to release next year. “We need to think how to do it, so it’s not a copy of the first one but something more,” Mr Sekielski says