A penitential liturgy for the crimes of sex abuse in the industrial city of Łódź on March 28 signaled an about-face for the Polish Church.

Two weeks earlier, the leaders of the country’s bishops’ conference held a press conference where they criticized “zero tolerance” as an ideology with Nazi roots. In Łódź, Archbishop Grzegorz Ryś expressed exactly the opposite – a “victims first” approach, in-sync with Pope Francis’s latest guidelines.

In a nationwide report on clergy sexual abuse released by the Polish Bishops’ Conference on March 14, the Archbishop of Łódź reported that there were 10 victims of 4 abusive priests over the past 29 years in his archdiocese.

In a cathedral full of priests from his diocese, Ryś said he wanted “to say to each and every of those ten victims, on my own behalf and in the name of all of you here – I am sorry”, adding “it is ten too many,” and that none of the acts “should have never happened”.

“We squandered our vocation” – the archbishop continued – “we were supposed to lead people to God and we scandalized them, squandering the gift of celibacy. The whole debate going on right now is our fault,” adding that celibacy was reduced by the priests themselves to a cumbersome law “squandering the grace hidden within it.”

The archbishop also announced new more restrictive diocesan rules on protecting minors, urging priests to be responsible for one another and telling them to immediately report suspicious behavior: “What does love mean if it’s unable to admonish?”

The penitential liturgy also included the read testimony of a victim, which the participants – the archbishop, priests, and faithful – listened to while kneeling.

The event took place exactly two weeks after the release of a report on the scale of sex abuse in the Polish church, listing 625 victims and 382 abusive priests from 1990 to 2019.

While the release of the data was a major step forward in transparency by the Church in Poland, the press conference presenting the information was a major failure. It featured the recently re-elected presidium of the Polish Bishops’ Conference: Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poznań and his deputy, Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski, Metropolitan of Krakow.

Jędraszewski told the media: “The Church must be impeccably resolute in the fight against evil, but she must also call for conversion, penance and show mercy to the perpetrators, if they show sincere regret,” adding that the “zero tolerance” principle is totalitarian and originates from Nazi traditions.

Gądecki added that pedophilia in the Church is actually an “ideologically coined” slogan and “quite skillfully chosen” by the enemies of the Church, and while the problem exists, the media uses it to destroy the people’s trust in the clergy.

Those remarks of the highest representatives of the Polish Church, in addition to their lack of an apology to the victims, sparked outrage among Catholics.

Some of the priests who actually handle abuse cases for the Church privately told Crux that recovering trust to hierarchy would require years.

Zbigniew Nosowski, the editor-in-chief of the Więź (Polish: Bond) quarterly, recently wrote: “The bishops’ presidency does not understand that their approach to sexual abuse may be a ‘to be or not to be’ in the Church for many Catholics.”

Nosowski told Crux that clearly Polish bishops show a “different speed” in handling sex abuse.

“The hierarchy in the Church has to finally get it that their words in any other social aspect will remain unheard if they won’t deal with sex abuse first,” he said.

Szymon Hołownia, columnist for Tygodnik Powszechny, quickly called the conference a “seppuku” (Japanese ritual suicide) committed by the bishops, and lamented that the faithful are devastated by the missed opportunity to apologize to the victims.

While Gądecki and Jędraszewski sat at one side of the room, their colleagues sitting at the opposite side became media heroes. Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno and the Primate of Poland had just been appointed by the bishops as the delegate for child protection.

“Each of the victims should arouse in us, the clergy, pain, shame and guilt,” Polak said.

Next to him sat a man who has become a symbol of hope for an end to clergy sex abuse in the Polish Church – Jesuit Father Adam Żak, head of the Krakow Center for Child Protection.

Polak and Zak have been given the task of putting into practice the recommendations made by the Vatican at February’s unprecedented summit on clerical sex abuse, which took place in Rome. During the meeting, Pope Francis said the first task needs to be to “change the hearts” of bishops and religious leaders.

‘Much has been done already in the Polish Church,” Nosowski told Crux, underlining the official rules and activities promoted by Zak’s Center for Child Protection.

“Victims first and changing the awareness of the bishops is an absolute basic starting point for hierarchy at the moment,” he said.