KRAKÓW, Poland – In an unprecedented move for the Polish Church, the Vatican banned a retired cardinal from public ministry, public appearances, and the use of the bishop’s insignia.

Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz of Wrocław also cannot be buried in the archdiocesan cathedral after his death.

The disciplinary measures are a historic and symbolic moment for the Church in Poland.

When the Vatican embassy published the statement on Gulbinowicz on Friday, the cardinal was informed about the decision, but the archdiocese said his state of health meant he was probably unaware of what had just happened.

Father Rafał Kowalski, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Wrocław, told Crux the development “is a sign that things are not swept under the carpet in the Church and that there is no reduced tariff for anyone.”

The Vatican statement said the decision came as “a result of inquiries into accusations against Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz, and after analyzing other charges concerning his past, the Holy See has taken disciplinary measures.”

Although the Vatican statement didn’t give details on the “accusations” against Gulbinowicz, it included a requirement he give compensation to the St. Joseph Foundation, which was established by the Polish Bishops’ Conference to help victims of sexual abuse.

“People were hurt, and this is the moment to tell them – we’re sorry,” Kowalski told Crux.

The abuse crisis in Poland exploded after the release of a documentary on YouTube in May 2019 called Tell No One, by the filmmakers known as the Sekielski Brothers. The film documented a history of abuse and cover-up in the country and was viewed by more than 2.5 million people in less than 24 hours.

RELATED: Documentary aims to be Polish ‘Spotlight,’ compel bishops to act

Soon after its release, an alleged victim using the pseudonym Karol Chum posted on Facebook that he was abused by Gulbinowicz, but never reported it to the Church authorities. However, after the archdiocesan offices were made aware of the post, they contacted the alleged victim, and he eventually filed an official canonical complaint against the cardinal.

He was allegedly abused by Gulbinowicz when he was a 15-year-old student at the Franciscan Minor Seminary.

His case was turned down by the state prosecutor in 2019, due to the statute of limitations. The Church proceeded with its own investigation, which ended with the disciplinary measures announced on Friday.

“Even if we’re talking about actions that took place decades ago, in the Church they are never going to be considered too old,” the Archdiocese of Wrocław said in a statement.

“The fact that we know publicly what penalty was imposed on the cardinal is a game changer,” Father Piotr Studnicki, head of the Child Protection Office of the Polish Bishops Conference, told Crux.

“People need to know whether the case was solved and what is the truth,” he said, adding that it is a visible sign of change in the communications strategy surrounding high-profile cases in the Church.

“It’s enough to compare it to the case of Juliusz Paetz, the deceased metropolitan of Poznan: It happened 20 years ago and we still don’t know how the case was processed,” he said.

Robert Fidura, a clerical sex abuse survivor, told Crux: “Finally – if such serious penalty was imposed and publicly announced, the reasons must have been grave.”

A once glorious past leads to a downfall

Gulbinowicz was an important figure in the communist-era Church in Poland. He became a Archbishop of Wrocław in 1975, and he was the one who hid the funds of the local branch of Solidarity when martial law was about to be imposed on the country in 1981.

Four years later John Paul II made him a cardinal. He resigned as Archbishop of Wrocław in 2004.

The Polish government also honored Gulbinowicz. President Lech Kaczyński decorated the cardinal with the Order of the White Eagle, and Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, IPN, called him “the unbroken cardinal” in light of his anti-communist activities.

However, historians at the IPN later discovered a darker history about the cardinal in the state archives.

“Before I studied the secret service documents, it seemed like Gulbinowicz was a positive hero,” Professor Rafał Łatka, a historian at the IPN, told Crux.

Łatka and co-author Filip Musiał will later this month publish a new book on the cardinal called Dialogue Needs to be Continued. Operational Conversations of Communist Secret Service with Cardinal Heryk Gulbinowicz. A Case Study.

Even if Gulbinowicz wasn’t an official agent of the communist secret service, historians claim his dealings with the Służba Bezpieczeństwa (SB) – the communist secret service in Poland – for 16 years were harmful to the Church.

“Bishop Gulbinowicz informed neither Primate [Stefan] Wyszyński nor his successor Primate [Józef] Glemp about his meetings with the SB,” Łatka said, adding that any encounters between any clerics with the SB were officially prohibited by the bishops’ conference.

“It was thanks to those conversations with the regime that Gulbinowicz obtained a post he really wanted – becoming the metropolitan of Wrocław. It was the regime that wanted him in Wrocław, considering that he was not loyal to Cardinal Wyszyński, unlike the candidates previously indicated by the primate,” Łatka told Crux.

The professor also said the SB had information on Gulbinowicz’s homosexual relationships.

Several Polish priests confirmed in conversations with Crux that Gulbinowicz’s homosexuality was an open secret in the Church in Poland.

For Church in Poland, a Pandora’s box is opened

Many observers now say the Gulbinowicz case opens up Pandora’s box for the Church in Poland.

His case touches on several others now dominating the headlines in the country.

Bishop Edward Janiak was recently removed from the Diocese of Kalisz after allegations he covered up clerical sexual abuse were made earlier this year in Hide and Seek, a second documentary produced by the Sekielski Brothers.

RELATED: New documentary highlights abuse cover-up in Poland

Janiak was a priest in Wrocław and served as an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese under Gulbinowicz.

In addition, the cardinal was a close friend of Archbishop Józef Kowalczyk, a Polish Vatican diplomat who served as Apostolic Nuncio to his homeland from 1989-2010, and was therefore responsible for submitting names of possible bishops in the country. Kowalczyk later served as Archbishop of Gniezno from 2010-2014.

Journalist Tomasz Terlikowski said the sanctions against Gulbinowicz will cause an earthquake in the Church in Poland.

“Now the actions of Archbishop Józef Kowalczyk should be looked at through a magnifying glass by the Vatican,” he wrote on Facebook.

Another close collaborator of Gulbinowicz was the recently retired archbishop of Gdańsk, Sławoj Leszek Głódź.

When he was a priest, Głódź served as the driver for the cardinal’s secret meetings with regime officials.

Głódź has been accused of covering up clerical sexual abuse in his archdiocese, and an inquiry has been launched under the rules of Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the Vatican’s new anti-abuse legislation which came into effect last year.

“The history of bishops – including those that were dying as heroes – will be written anew,” Terlikowski wrote.

“A very hard time is ahead of us.”

Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina