KRAKÓW, Poland – The Dominican province in Poland has started an independent, lay-led investigation of a sect-like youth ministry ran by Dominican Father “Paweł M.” between 1996-2000 in Wrocław.

The Dominican friary in Wrocław released a statement on March 7 apologizing for the abuse.

“We turn to you with great pain and shame. We stand before you in the truth that, despite the passage of years, is revealing its terrifying face more and more clearly,” the statement said.

The Dominicans apologized “from the bottom of our hearts” for the abuse that happened in the youth ministry 25 years ago.

“We want to learn about the mechanisms that prevented the community from seeing the dramatic events taking place close to it. This will help us avoid such evil in the future,” the statement said.

Several commentators praised the religious order for issuing the statement and making the decision to investigate the alleged abuse without a visible push to force the issue.

But on March 24, the other shoe dropped.

News broke in Więź – a Polish Catholic quarterly – that March 2, five days before the Dominicans issued their statement, prosecutors had been informed that a nun was also abused in the same manner as the young women in the youth group in the 1990s.

A new victim – a nun – has come forward to accuse the friar of abusing her from 2011-2018.

Paweł M. was accused of abusing power and using psycho-manipulation, claiming that his actions were “God’s will.” [The priest has been arrested, and under Polish law, his full name cannot be published.]

The report in Więź documented the details of the abuse, and how the Dominicans apparent transparency wasn’t exactly self-driven.

“He chose people who had nowhere to go”

In the final years of the 20th century, Paweł M. was a popular priest, with thousands of people attending his Masses. However, when he took over a youth ministry in Wrocław – located in southwestern Poland – a cult-like atmosphere quickly formed.

“He chose people who had nowhere to go; girls who needed help,” said Weronika [whose name has been changed to protect her identity]. “With him around, you felt you were surrounded by love and acceptance that you did not get at home.”

However, she told Więź this “positivity” soon turned into abuse.

“He was beating me until I was unconscious and then raped me,” she said. She was barely 20 at the time.

Weronika claims she was raped dozens of times. Other girls have also come forward with accusations of sexual assault against Paweł M.

Victims say that they were told these actions were “God’s will,” and if anyone resisted, the priest warned that someone from their family might be hurt.

He also heard the sacramental confessions of his victims, during which he excused his own actions but said they were committing sexual sins.

When Father Marcin Mogielski took over the group, he quickly realized something was wrong.

“I believed them from the very first moment,” he told Więź.

He wrote down testimonies of the victims for Father Maciej Zięba, the Dominican provincial at the time.

Zięba punished Paweł M. with a ban from youth ministry, and a year’s ban from any other public ministry. He was also ordered to spend a month at Camaldolese monastery, and to spend a year working in a children’s hospice.

This was in the year 2000, two years before the sexual abuse scandal exploded with the Boston Globe exposé on clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Victims remember painful conversations with the provincial – “You are adults,” he allegedly told them. However, he also offered to pay for psychological treatment, which some of the women say has benefited them.

After his year’s ban from public ministry, Paweł M. went back to running retreats and hearing confessions.

Ten years later, in 2011, the priest visits a convent and speaks to Sister Małgorzata [whose name has been changed to protect her identity].

“Everyone was an enemy”

“At first I thought – wow, what a charismatic priest,” she told Więź.

After months of daily, hours-long phone conversations, he told Sister Małgorzata “that discernment is such that he will heal me and that there are a few things that need to be done.”

It was then he sexually abused her, telling her: “The Lord wants it.”

For the next seven years they speak daily, for hours at a time. The religious sister slowly cuts her ties with all her friends and loved ones.

“Everyone was an enemy,” she told Więź, adding that Paweł M. told her to keep everything secret.

In 2017, the priest begins to offer regular monthly retreats for the convent, and Sister Małgorzata claims he abused her five months in a row in 2018.

In 2020, she tells her confessor about what has happened, and he suggests she attend therapy. She does, and at the end of the year tells her therapist what has been happening.

In January 2021, the nun tells a trusted monk about the abuse. By luck or providence, the monk had known Weronika for years, and knew about the abuse that happened to her 25 years earlier.

“I informed [Sister Małgorzata] that she had been hurt by a serial abuser and that what [Father Paweł M.] done to her, he had done to many women 20 years earlier,” he told Więź.

Events then take a rapid turn. The nun’s own provincial is informed, and immediately reports the priest under the rules outlined in Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the Vatican’s new legislation on sexual abuse.

She also sent Sister Małgorzata to the prosecutor’s office.

“I felt like Judas going there,” Sister Małgorzata told Więź. “It even has a name – Stockholm syndrome.”

Provincial responsibility

During the time Paweł M. was allegedly beginning his abuse of the nun, the Dominican provincial was Father Krzysztof Popławski.

In 2010, when victims from youth ministry wrote a letter to him expressing their concerns that Paweł M. was still in active ministry, Popławski imposed new sanctions on him, including a ban on hearing confessions and giving spiritual direction.

He checked with the order’s lawyers to see if he could punish him again.

“I heard he was already punished,” Popławski told Więź.

“I was convinced that Paweł was punished by [previous provincial] Maciej Zięba and that he was under control. These are two of my beliefs at that time. Now I know I was wrong in my belief that he was under control,” he said.

Paweł M. was in fact working around the sanctions. Even though he told Sister Małgorzata he can’t hear her confession, he wanted her to tell him all her secrets: “It was a confession without an absolution,” she told Więź.

In 2019, Weronika saw the priest on the street, and immediately did an internet search discovering he was scheduled to give parish retreats.

After writing the now-Dominican provincial, Father Paweł Kozacki, about why the abusive priest was still preaching, she receives a reply saying that a 2016 psychological opinion had said Paweł M. was capable to minister in a limited capacity.

“What I am guided by today in my decisions is to ensure that no one is harmed (…) I constantly monitor his actions and make sure that no threat is created for any person (…) By occasionally agreeing to Father Paweł preaching individual retreats, I decided that even the greatest culprit had the right to correct and change his behavior. I do not trivialize his guilt; I do not disregard what happened and I try to be as careful as possible,” the letter says.

Speaking to Więź, Kozacki said: “Where there is my fault, I am ready to take the consequences.”

Popławski, his predecessor, told Więź, “It is also my responsibility,” when he learned the nun was abused under his tenure.

Father Maciej Zięba, the first provincial to deal with the case, died on Dec. 31, 2020.

Independent commission

On March 30, the Dominicans announced that an independent, lay-led commission will investigate Paweł M., the day before he was arrested.

The commission is headed by Tomasz Terlikowski, a philosopher, journalist and writer.

“It is time to step out of my journalist comfort zone,” he wrote on Twitter, admitting it was a tough decision to step into the role of an investigator.

“By analyzing the situation both canonically and pastorally, we will try to investigate how it could happen, how it was even possible” Terlikowski told KAI, the Polish Catholic news agency.

“It is important what legal or moral obligations have been fulfilled and which have not,” he said, adding however that their main task “is to produce a report, not judging anyone.”

Terlikowski said the commission led by him will draw experience from similar bodies that were investigating Jean Vanier and Father Marie-Dominique Philippe in France. In fact, Paweł M. was a disciple of Philippe, a French Dominican who was found to have abused at least 15 women. Paweł M. wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Philippie and his theology.

Tomasz Krzyżak, a journalist for Rzeczpospolita, told Crux he sees the commission as a positive sign.

“I’m glad the Dominican order fulfilled their promise,” he said.

He noted that the team of experts on the commission – including a respected lay criminal lawyer, former longtime provincial of the Jesuits, lay psychologists and a canon lawyer – is impressive.

“Their big task will be to set standards for further commissions like that,” Krzyżak told Crux, adding that he hopes “it will cause an avalanche of investigations in other church institutions.”

The Dominican commission is set to deliver their final report on June 30.

Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina