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ROME – Poland’s bishops have wrapped up their ad limina visits to Rome, which usually take place every five years, but have been delayed due to the pandemic.

During their time in Rome, the bishops hold meetings with Pope Francis and the various departments of the Roman Curia, the central bureaucracy of the Vatican.

“There were no taboo topics,” said Auxiliary Bishop Adrian Galbas of Ełk, in northeastern Poland.

“The suggestions were not given as instructions. The pope was open to any questions. The pontiff told us – ask whatever you want, every issue important for you is the one I want to think through as well,” Galbas told Crux.

A Church in crisis

The Church in Poland is one of the biggest and most vibrant in Europe, yet a recent wave of media reports and documentaries revealing cases of clerical sexual abuse have put the Polish bishops on the back foot.

“Before I came to Rome for the ad limina, my friends were telling me to hang in there,” Galbas told Crux. “They felt sorry for me, and many people do think the ad limina is a criminal court case leading to execution – but it is and was exactly the opposite,” the bishop recalled.  “The atmosphere was brotherly in the dicasteries [Vatican offices] and very much fatherly with the Holy Father.”

The bishop said he was “surprised in a good way” about how well the Vatican officials knew the situation of the Church in Poland.

Since November 2020, ten bishops, including one cardinal, have been sanctioned by the Vatican or removed from their posts in the last year. Numerous Polish cases are still under investigation of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office that deals with clerical sexual abuse.

Many are calling the Church in Poland to set up an independent commission to investigate the scale of the problem in the country, as was recently done in France.

The primate of Poland, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, told journalists in Rome on October 18 that the credibility crisis is one of the main challenges facing the Church in Poland.

“Through clear naming of the problems we struggle with, we want to find a concrete way forward so that the credibility of the Church in Poland becomes greater.”

Galbas told Crux that an ad limina is a good moment to discuss a crisis, but not to fire the bishops, which is what some commentators expected.

“The Pope has his channels and methods to reprimand the bishops in the country,” he said, referring to the recently promulgated Vatican legislation on sex abuse, Vos Estis Lux Mundi. “He doesn’t have to and doesn’t intend to remove anybody at the ad limina visit.”

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of Polish bishops’ conference referred to the punishment of bishops in a meeting with Cardinal Marc Oullet, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.

In remarks to KAI, the Polish Catholic Information Agency, he mentioned talking with the head of the congregation about “disproportionate punishments” inflicted on bishops accused of coverups, compared to convicted abusers.

“Our task is to work with the Holy Father in clearing up our church’s current situation, which has undermined trust among certain people,” the archbishop told the Polish news agency after the meeting with Ouellet.

“Some (Polish bishops) highlighted the disproportionate, lasting penalties imposed on bishops after initial investigations, when pedophile criminals can leave prison after five years and begin a new life with a clean sheet,” he told KAI, as reported by Catholic News Service.

“We’re talking about the civil death of an accused hierarch who isn’t a pedophile, who’s removed from office, falls into infamy and is effectively annihilated by the media. The cardinal was rather surprised by my words. But he accepted we were not being aggressive toward the Holy See, just asking questions whether all of this conforms with the principle of proportionate guilt and punishment,” Gądecki said.

Tomasz Krzyżak, a journalist for the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita told Crux the bishops should know the harm caused by covering up abuse.

“The bishops should know that the superior of an abuser in a cassock, by hiding him and transferring him to another parish, allowed him to further harm innocent people. They should know that the pain of such harm stays with the victims for the rest of their lives,” he said.

“The bishops should know it,” Krzyżak noted, “and some of them of course do know that, but some, as we see, don’t.”

Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina