The first accusation of sexual abuse against a Polish bishop will serve as a testing ground for the Church’s new commitment to fighting sexual abuse, and how it manifests itself both locally and at the Vatican.

For decades, Bishop Jan Szkodoń was a significant figure in Krakow, the archdiocese of St. John Paul II and the spiritual center of Poland. From 1979, he was the spiritual director of the seminary for over a decade, until he was consecrated bishop in 1988. He was known for his deep spirituality and artistic sophistication – he even painted and wrote poetry. The only complaint one would hear about him was about the length of his homilies: Most faithful could barely keep their eyes open. But overall, in church circles and among the faithful, he was one of the “good guys.”

Unexpectedly, on Feb. 10, a year before his retirement, a young civil servant and mother accused him of abusing her in 1998, when she was a 15-year-old girl. In an article published by the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s investigative unit, Monika (not her real name) claims she was often a guest at the bishop’s apartment, and “Whether summer or winter, he always felt hot” – she recalled. “He took off his cassock and his shirt, remained in tank top and trousers, and unzipped trousers halfway.”

Then, said Monika, Szkodoń encouraged her to undress, touched her breasts, thighs and bit her ears. “Monika, God has sent you to me. He wants to teach me tenderness through you,” he allegedly told the girl.

The day before the Polish paper published its report, Szkodoń released a statement declaring his innocence: “These accusations violate my good name, which I intend to defend.”

If the bishop is found guilty by the Vatican, he could be the first Polish bishop not only to be removed from office, but also expelled from the priesthood.

Mixed reactions

Monika never told her family about the allegations; her parents were proud that such an important church figure dedicated time to their daughter, not suspecting there was anything more to her visits to his apartment than pastoral care. Now that she has made the story public, the family is as shocked as the rest of the city.

The archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jędraszewski, did not release an official statement. His spokesperson informed the media that Szkodoń left the archdiocese for an undisclosed location and that “the archdiocese was not aware of the accusations that the bishop is facing.”

However, his predecessor as archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, did not keep silent. In a statement released a day after the accusations, the longtime personal secretary of John Paul II said that “the allegations hurt many people for whom Bishop Jan is an authority, a father and a friend. We are all expecting the allegations to be thoroughly and quickly explained.”

Archbishop Wojciech Polak, Primate of Poland and Delegate for Child Protection of the Polish Bishops’ Conference took a different approach.

“Any information of that kind brings pain to the Church,” he said at a press conference on the pastoral healing needed for church sex abuse survivors. “It is a call that we shall always care about – the safe environment for children in the Church. And it is a call for each and every one in the Church.”

“The case is shocking and saddening,” Father Piotr Studnicki, head of the Child Protection Office of the Polish Episcopal Conference, told Crux.

He said the Wyborcza report is “painful reading,” adding, “we are awaiting the results of the investigation with patience and care.”

The Vatican ambassador’s role

Monika didn’t use the diocesan path of investigation. In May 2019, she reported the case directly to the Vatican embassy, called the Apostolic Nunciature (she also reported to the state prosecutors in August, public officials started an investigation, but they had to close it because of the statute of limitations).

“The first letter in this matter arrived at the Nunciature on May 27, 2019 and was forwarded to the Holy See the same day,” the embassy said in a Feb. 12 statement.

Nevertheless, it took eight months for church investigators to listen to the alleged victim: Monika was asked to testify only in January 2020.

During that time, Szkodoń was performing his duties as an auxiliary bishop of Krakow. On the day of her deposition, on January 23, 2020, the papal nuncio to Poland, Italian Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, met with Monika personally.

However, some have complained about the timeline of events.

“After all the papal declarations saying that the concern for victims is a priority for the Church, the real pace of dealing with those matters at the Vatican congregation is nothing but obstructive,” wrote Zbigniew Nosowski, chief editor of Wieź quarterly and one of the founders of a helpline for survivors of sexual abuse.

Many in Poland see the woman going to the media as a desperate move. She had been waiting for so long without any information from the Vatican or the Nunciature that she decided to go public with the case.

“Communications – meaning informing the reporting person what is the state of the matter – is a crucial thing for those who report cases of sexual abuse in the Church” – Studnicki told Crux.

“We owe it to the survivors – they need to know whether anyone is already working on their case,” the priest added, suggesting that a simple note on what is currently happening to the case may help a lot.

2019 was a year of reckoning on clerical sexual abuse for Poland, after the documentary “Tell No One” recounted the extent of the problem in the Church.

An earlier version of this article said Monika was asked to testify in December 2019. It was January 2020. It also misidentified the date of the apostolic nuncio’s meeting with Monika. We apologize for the error.

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