Poland becomes testing ground for Vatican’s new anti-abuse legislation

Poland becomes testing ground for Vatican’s new anti-abuse legislation

People walk by the Temple of Divine Providence, a major church in the Polish capital,in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, May 13, 2019. (Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP.)

The case of a Polish bishop ignoring years of accusations of abuse against a parish priest has become a crucible testing the effectiveness of the Vatican's new anti-abuse legislation.

In 1984 in the town of Międzybrodzie in southwestern Poland, a boy was abused by the local parish priest for more than five years, beginning when he was 12. Today, more than thirty-six years later, he is still looking for justice.

“Abuse was only one station in my personal way of the cross,” he wrote in a letter to Pope Francis last week.

The investigation into the case not only involved the accused priest and his bishop – the now retired Tadeusz Rakoczy – but might also involve Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, the longtime secretary of Pope John Paul II, who later served as Archbishop of Krakow from 2005-2016.

The Diocese of Bielsko–Żywiec, where the abuse happened, is in the Krakow ecclesiastical province.

A Polish priest is now accusing the cardinal of being informed about the case in 2012 in his role as metropolitan archbishop and doing nothing about it. The cardinal denies the accusations, and so far there is no concrete evidence that he knew about the abuse.

The horror of abuse and it’s cover up

It was during the season of Lent in 1984 when Father Jan Wodniak, the new parish pastor, invited the 12-year-old Janusz Szymik to his parish apartment. Wodniak, a former chaplain to Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, then-Archbishop of Krakow, was an important local figure.

“My parents were so proud the parish priest invited me to his house,” Szymik told Crux.

However, the parent’s trust was misplaced. Their son was raped for five years; he claims approximately 500 times.

“It was a total matrix I couldn’t get out of as a boy,” Szymik recalled.

In 1989, when he was 17, Szymik told his best friend about the abuse. He took him to a monk who was a friend, and he told Szymik that the toxic relationship needed to be cut immediately, and that Wodniak had to pay compensation for the harm.

The priest never did, so when the new Bielsko-Żywiecka diocese was established, Szymik informed the new bishop, Tadeusz Rakoczy, about the abuse. This was in 1993.

“After I read my story in front of him, he shook my hand and told me: I will pray for you,” Szymik recalled.

On that same day, the abusive priest knocked at Szymik’s door and told him: “I must say you wrote it quite well,” revealing that Szymik’s testimony to the bishop had been passed on immediately to Wodniak.

After trying to get justice for years, Szymik visited Rakoczy one more time in 2007. Again, the bishop didn’t take any action and Wodniak continued his work as a parish priest:

“Bishop Rakoczy acted like Pilate. He washed out his hands,” Szymik told Crux.

Szymik finds a defender

Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski is a well-known figure in Poland. A Catholic priest of the Armenian rite, he was a vocal opponent of the Communist regime and a persecuted by the government in his years at the seminary and as a young priest in the 1980’s.

When democracy returned to Poland, he decided to investigate the “rotten apples” in the Church. In 2007 he published the book Priests and Communist Secret Service, which documented the actions of priests in the Archdiocese of Krakow who were collaborators of the communist regime.

Thanks to the book, Isakowicz-Zaleski became a well-known figure for chasing “agents in cassock” and the natural choice for victims of clerical sexual abuse to approach.

At the presentation of his book on the collaborator priests, Szymik met Isakowicz-Zaleski for the first time. Szymik recognized one of the figures depicted in the book as agent “Janek”:  It was Wodniak, his abuser.

Wodniak was one of many priests recruited by the secret service because of the personal secrets they were hiding – both homosexuality and abusing minors.

In 2012, after Isakowicz-Zaleski’s second book I Only Want the Truth, written with journalist Tomasz Terlikowski, the Krakow Priest Council invited him for a special hearing in the Spring of 2012.

Isakowicz-Zaleski expected to be grilled by the Council members for revealing information about priests collaborating with the secret service, but that didn’t happen.

“I am happy that Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz invited me for this meeting, it is a good path to talk to each other,” Isakowicz-Zaleski told KAI on March 28, 2012. “The path of conversation that the Church is taking, is very positive.”

The accusation against Dziwisz

Eight years later, in September 2020, Isakowicz-Zaleski publicly accused Dziwisz of doing nothing regarding the sexual abuse against Szymik. The news first broke when Polish website Onet wrote about the case on September 12, 2020.

According to Isakowicz-Zaleski, as a follow-up of that 2012 Krakow Priest Council meeting, he had a personal meeting with Dziwisz in which the priest claims he handed over documents relating to the cases of Szymik and other abuse victims.

“The cardinal listened to me, I handed him a letter and he promised me he will take care of it,” Isakowicz-Zaleski told Crux, recalling the alleged encounter.

Dziwisz says he doesn’t remember this particular personal meeting with Isakowicz-Zaleski and denies the accusation that he ignored reports of the abuse of power by Rakoczy, whose diocese was in the Krakow ecclesiastical province.

Isakowicz-Zaleski doesn’t give an exact date of the meeting either, saying that it occurred “at the end of April or the beginning of May of 2012.” He published the letter allegedly handed to the cardinal on his personal website in September this year, and it is dated April 24, 2012.

According to information obtained by Crux, there is no official information in the Krakow curia about the meeting, although the press office hasn’t officially replied to the question on whether the meeting took place.

The case happened seven years before the Vatican enacted Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the legislation which makes the metropolitan archbishop the point of reference for cases involving dioceses in his province.

Dziwisz told Crux that the new norms didn’t change the fact that reacting in a case like that was always an obligation of any bishop.

“If a bishop knows about the case like that, he is in conscience obliged to act. A bishop hiding such cases is taking responsibility before God in doing so,” the cardinal said.

Dziwisz also denies having knowledge about this particular case.

“I met Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski many times when I was the metropolitan of Krakow, but I have absolutely no trace in my memory of the meeting regarding this particular case and handling me the documents Father Tadeusz is now publishing,” the cardinal told Crux.

“If I knew about such grave accusations, I certainly would inform Bishop Rakoczy that this took place,” he added.

In a statement given to KAI, the cardinal also asks for an independent commission that would investigate the case.

Father Piotr Studnicki is the head of Child Protection Office of the Polish bishops’ conference, and served as spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Krakow under Dziwisz for two years.

“From the experience of two years of cooperation with Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz I can testify that clerical sexual abuse cases were proceeded according to the Church and state law norms,” he told Crux.

“At the time when I was a spokesman, I remember two such cases. Overall, there were seven when the cardinal was a metropolitan and all of them were taken care of immediately,” the priest added.

Studnicki is now a leading advocate for victims of clerical sexual abuse in Poland, working under the supervision of the Primate of Poland, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, who is the first Polish bishop to report another bishop for abuse of power under the provisions of Vos Estis Lux Mundi.

RELATED: Polish bishop lashes out at archbishop for reporting abuse cover-up to Vatican

In June 2020, Isakowicz-Zaleski wrote about handing the documents to Dziwisz in his newest book The Church Needs to Be Transparent – one more with journalist Tomasz Terlikowski.

Asked by Crux why a year earlier he didn’t himself report the alleged negligence under the provisions Vos Estis Lux Mundi, he replied: “I thought writing about it in the book is a better form.”

Wodniak finally meets justice

In November 2013, Rakoczy retired as Bishop of Bielsko–Żywiec, twenty years after Szymik first reported the abuse of Wodniak to him; Wodniak was still a parish priest at Międzybrodzie Żywieckie.

Szymik decided to try for justice one more time, this time with the new local bishop, Roman Pindel.

This time, the Church responded.

On March 8, 2014, a little more than a month after Szymik approached the new bishop, Wodniak was removed from the parish and sent to “an isolated place.” A year later, the canonical process was completed. The abusive priest appealed twice, but in December 2017, Wodniak was finally sentenced to 5 years of prohibition of any priestly ministry in public, the prohibition against hearing confessions and the obligation to stay in a secluded place.

“His punishment would have ended in 2021,” Szymik told Crux, “but thankfully another victim decided to file a complaint.”

He says he thinks the priest might have abused dozens of people.

Szymik’s battle for justice did not end with Wodniak’s sentence.

In May 2019, he met with the president of the Polish bishop’s conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, and Father Adam Żak, the head of Polish Child Protection Center.

After that meeting, Żak helped Szymik to write a complaint under the new Vatican legislation.

In July 2019, Szymik filed an official complaint to the papal representative in Warsaw, accusing Rakoczy of abuse of power and negligence while serving as Bishop of Bielsko-Żywiecka.

“Believe me, if I didn’t have the money, the will and some lawyers around, I wouldn’t have had the power to fight for justice, as so many other victims don’t have,” Szymik told Crux, noting the he has been treated for cancer over the past few years.

Silence from the Vatican

In February 2020, after seven months of waiting, Szymik wrote to the Vatican representative again, asking how was his case going.

He got an answer on March 4, 2020, with an apology for the delay, and he was assured “the case was  taken care of immediately.”

The investigation under Vos Estis Lux Mundi against Rakoczy began in June 2020, and was being conducted by Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Krakow, at the request of Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith,.

Crux asked archdiocese whether the alleged negligence by Dziwisz was a part of the official investigation. We were redirected to the nunciature, which has not responded to a Sept. 18 request for comment. An Oct. 2 request for comment from the Vatican press office also did not receive a response.

On October 9, the archdiocese of Krakow released a statement saying that the diocesan part of investigation of Rakoczy was completed, but other details on the findings of the investigation were revealed.

A day earlier, Szymik had filed another letter in the papal representative – this time addressed to Pope Francis.

“For over 20 years I had to stand up in Mass looking at Father Wodniak at the altar,” the letter states.

“The abuse was only one station of my way of the cross,” he continues. The other was fighting for justice: “How can we trust the bishops who are deaf to our cries?”

Janusz also asks the pope to start an investigation, led by the Vatican, to find out whether Dziwisz knew about his case in 2012.

“Investigating this case lays not only in the interest of the Church in Poland,” said Tomasz Krzyżak, a journalist for the Rzeczpospolita newspaper who also filed once a complaint under Vos Estis Lux Mundi. “But also in the interest of the Universal Church,” because Dziwisz was a longtime secretary of Pope John Paul II, “and accusations against him for many will shadow also the legacy of John Paul II.”

According to Krzyżak, there are eleven Polish cases that are now at the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, asking for accountability for bishops who are currently in office.

He said since none of them have been resolved, the question remains how to make the cases proceed Faster.

“The Vatican needs to immediately strengthen the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith”, said Father Krzysztof Porosło, assistant professor at Pontifical University of John Paul II and a youth minister in Krakow.

“Clearly there are not enough people, neither to handle those cases nor to communicate them,” he said.

One of his concerns is that that the problem will grow and have a bigger impact, especially on youth ministers, who are already having trouble convincing young people in Poland about the credibility of Church institution.

Father Wojciech Węgrzyniak, a professor at Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, says a quicker process is important for credibility.

“All those cases need to be handled by justice institutions, and it’s normal those institutions are slow, but in those particular cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors, because of the super slow process,  the media takes up the role of justice, and as we see it’s not the greatest solution for the case,” he said.

Studnicki, a professor of communications both in Krakow and in Rome, says there is also problem with civil legislation in Poland.

“The cases are expiring 12 years after a victim is 18 years old, which means that many victims cannot turn to state prosecution in Poland. The only institution they can rely on is the Church,” he said. “The Polish law in that matter is inept and needs to be changed.”

Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina

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