WARSAW, Poland — Activists in Poland toppled a statue of a prominent Solidarity-era priest early Thursday amid allegations that he sexually abused minors, a protest against what they called a failure by the Catholic Church and society to resolve the problem of clergy sex abuse.
The protest came only hours before Pope Francis gathered Catholic leaders from around the world for a landmark summit at the Vatican to address the Church’s sex abuse crisis.
Video footage showed three men attaching a rope around the statue of the late Monsignor Henryk Jankowski in the northern city of Gdansk and then pulling it down to the ground in the dark. The activists then placed children’s underwear in one of the statue’s hands and a small white lace church vestment worn by altar boys on the statue’s body to symbolize the suffering of the young people he allegedly molested.
It was a striking act in a country where more than 90 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and where the Church still enjoys significant authority in public life. That position appears to be changing, however, as secularization grows along with a developing economy.
Church leaders have also alienated some Poles with their close ties to the conservative ruling party, which has been accused of eroding Poland’s democratic culture and institutions.
Police detained the three men and opened an investigation into whether they committed the crime of “insulting a monument.”
Jankowski, who died in 2010, rose to prominence in the 1980s through his support for the pro-democracy Solidarity movement and its leader, Lech Walesa, in their struggle against Poland’s communist regime. World leaders including President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited his St. Brygida church in recognition of his anti-communist activity.
But in recent months, Polish media have carried allegations that he abused minors, mostly boys but also girls. A foundation that represents victims of abuse recently said several people have also come to them with reports of having been abused by Jankowski.
In a manifesto, the activists in Gdansk accused Jankowski of “vile” acts against young people entrusted into his care. They accused the Church of “systemic complicity in the evil done to people by Henryk Jankowski” and they accused public officials of looking away from the problem.
They said their own actions were in no way directed against the faithful.
“Driven by concern for the common good and respect for human dignity and freedom, we undertake our action in the conviction not only of its profound rightfulness, but also of its public usefulness, and as such, we summit to the community’s judgment,” the manifesto said. It was signed by the three activists, Konrad Korzeniowski, Rafal R. Suszek and Michal Wojcieszczuk.
The three cushioned the fall of the statue with tires, explaining that their goal was not to physically destroy the monument but rather to upend “the false and hideous myth” of the priest.
By morning, authorities had cordoned off the area and covered the statue.
City authorities said they will not return the monument to its place, but will put it in storage. An official said the base was damaged and it would not be safe to re-erect. The city, in any case, has been seeking to remove the statue using legal procedures.
The Polish Bishops’ Conference released a statement Thursday which did not mention the action, but which vowed “zero tolerance” of pedophilia. It said it has been working for 10 years to fight the problem of clergy abuse.
“The Catholic Church is the most advanced institution in this field in our country,” it said.