ROME – Dominicans in Poland have confirmed the Vatican has yet to respond to a Sept. 15 report on a sect-like youth ministry run by a priest accused of sexual abuse in the late 1990’s.
An independent, lay-led investigation produced the 250-page report documenting several cases of abuse in the hands Dominican Father Pawel M. – whose full name cannot be revealed under Polish law since he is awaiting trial – from 1996-2000, but also of negligence by the Dominican leaders in handling those cases.
The document is first of its kind in the Catholic Church in Poland.
“This report pays justice to the victims, to those whose suffering and lives have been ignored for years,” said Tomasz Terlikowski, chairperson of the investigative commission, on the day the report was released. “The Church will only shine with truth if she has the courage to tell the truth.”
Decades of abuse and negligence of power
Paweł M. is accused of numerous rapes, physical and psychological violence and sect-like practices in a youth ministry in Wrocław, in south-western Poland. These crimes took place between 1996 and 2002. He is also accused of other crimes since then, including raping a religious sister.
It was another Dominican, Father Marcin Mogielski, who first realized what was happening in the youth ministry. He gathered testimony from a number of the victims in 2002 and brought them to the then-Dominican provincial, Father Maciej Zięba.
Following the complaint, the provincial banned Paweł M. from youth ministry permanently, and from any other public ministry for a year. He also ordered the friar to do a month-long retreat at a Camaldolese monastery, and to spend a year working in a children’s hospice.
“Proceedings in his case were not conducted according to canon law. It was a discretional and personal act of punishment decided by the provincial, and the severity of the penalty imposed on him was significantly inadequate to the burden of the offender’s acts,” says the report.
After his year’s ban from public ministry, Paweł M. went back to pastoral work. In 2006, a new provincial of the Dominicans in Poland imposed new limitations to his ministry, but he was still able to travel unsupervised.
It was during one of these trips, in 2011, when after saying Mass at a female convent, priest allegedly found another victim.
Only after the religious sister and one of the previous victims gave testimony in the prosecutor’s office on March 2, 2021, followed by breaking news in Więź magazine three weeks later, the Dominicans decided to launch a formal investigation, handled by an independent commission.
“I think what is most important is the recognition of a very specific harm that has been done by the actions of our brother. Also [because of] our failure to act as Provincials. […] We want to deeply apologize for that”, Father Krzysztof Popławski, Dominican provincial between 2006 and 2014, during the time Paweł M. abused a nun, said at the press conference releasing the report.
Popławski tried to impose further limitations to the ministry of Paweł M., but was advised by the order’s lawyers that nothing else could be done because the friar had already punished by the previous provincial.
In 2019, when Paweł M. was still in ministry, “Weronika”, one of his victims [the name has been changed, as Crux does not identify the victims of sexual abuse], sent a letter to the now-provincial Father Paweł Kozacki. Even though the letter was received after the promulgation of Pope Francis’s Vos Estis Lux Mundi, no canonical process was started.
“It is only by our determination that Paweł M. is in prison now for what he has done to us,” Weronika told Crux. “Without our strength, the strength of women hurt by this man, we still wouldn’t hear about this case.”
She adds she is grateful to the present provincial for letting the report to be released: “It feels like a chapter has been written, but the book is not finished.”
She and other victims are now in the process of mediation for financial compensation with the Dominican province in Poland.
The canonical process was only opened after the case was reported to the prosecutor in March 2021.
A ground-breaking report
On March 30, 2021, the Dominican Order commissioned an independent investigation led by Terlikowski, a philosopher and journalist, that included canon and criminal lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists and the former provincial of the Jesuits in Poland.
The report documents not only the stories of abuse but also the reasons why Paweł M. was able to remain in ministry for almost 20 years and meet new potential victims, despite the powerful and shocking reports that had been compiled and presented to the Dominicans against him.
“Many people have been painfully deceived: Not only by the perpetrator himself, but also by the Order,” the report says.
The report said the case should be treated as an exception, but as a description of the condition of the order.
“We recommend that all the Brothers acknowledge the fact that they are co-creating the painfully guilty structure – no one in the present situation can escape from accepting responsibility for the evil that has found fertile ground in the Order to grow and mature among the Brothers,” it says.
The report underlines that Paweł M. could rise through the ranks and act unchecked because the order put his “glorious image” ahead of “inconvenient facts,” adding the province for years underestimated the problem.
The commission critiques the “improper approach to the victims,” and the attitude oriented towards “fighting against” rather than “caring for.” The commission also blames “internal disputes and power games.”
But overall, the commission pointed to a staggering “incompetence in legal matters.”
The commission writes in the report that the order’s lawyers didn’t consider it convenient to start a canonical process each time the opportunity presented itself: I 2000, when the first testimonies had been heard; in 2010, when the victims wrote a letter to the new provincial; and in 2019, under the pretense that the order had “taken care of” this “old” matter.
Canon lawyers told Crux that the obligation of starting a process was not just because of the accusations regarding sexual violence, but also because of accusations the priest broke the seal of confession and committed the canonical crime of “solicitation,” that is, requesting sexual favors during confession.
“Dominicans should have started a primary investigation according to Canon 1717,” said Dr. Aleksandra Brzemia-Bonarek, a canon lawyer at Pontifical University of John Paul II and a member of the Vatican’s Dicastery of Laity, Family ad Life.
“As soon as they would have initiated the canonical process, breaking the secret of confession and solicitation would have been among the first crimes to come out as a result of the proceeding,” she told Crux. But the process was never started, the canon lawyer argued, even though the need of doing so would be evident “for a student of the last year of canon law.”
“I am ashamed as a canon lawyer, I am ashamed as a member of this profession, that so little has been done to resolve that case,” Brzemia-Bonarek said, adding: “It is more than 20 years of incomprehensible neglect.”
The legal steps after the report
Kozacki, the current Dominican provincial, refused to answer Crux’s questions about what steps have been taken to report solicitation and breaking the seal of confession after the report was published, and other questions related to the report.
[Editor’s Note: The provincial referred to an article by Guzik in the Polish magazine Więź documenting the suffering of Pawel M.’s victims, accusing her of “advocacy” and serving as a “spokesperson of the victims.”]
However, Dominican Father Mark C. Padrez, the Socius for Fraternal Life and Formation of the Dominican order’s general curia, confirmed with Crux the report had been forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, but added, “as to date neither the General Curia nor the Province have heard from the CDF.”
“As reporters for Catholic media, you have heard many times from Church officials of their commitment to address the issue of sexual abuse, and no doubt, given your experience, you believe the Church needs to go beyond words and become more proactive,” Padrez said in an email.
Padrez wrote that “the Dominican Order is determined that any response to sexual abuse committed by our brothers, will be centered on the victims and their families.” He then added that the report was “just the first step of transparency and to have a victim-oriented response in the Church of Poland. … It is important that the victims are heard, validated, assisted in their recovery, and assured justice.”
He also said that regarding the allegations that Pawel M. had broken the seal of confession and other accusations against the priest, “a dossier has been compiled and the preliminary investigation has begun.”
The priest confirmed that – “as a matter of due diligence” – the province has decided to wait for the civil investigation and trial to be completed: “Once completed, the case will be submitted to the CDF by the province anticipating that the CDF will authorize the penal process to begin.
In the meanwhile, Padrez added, “Pawel M. is in jail, and since before his arrest he has been forbidden to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, or wear the habit by decree from the Provincial.”
Father Jan Dohnalik, a canon lawyer who served as a consultant of the Dominican report, told Crux that “sending the report to the CDF through the Apostolic Nuncio is a commendable step, although this cannot be considered reporting the case to the CDF,” because, among other things, it does not provide the personal information of the perpetrator or the victims.
The canonist argued that now that the report was ready, “the Dominicans should collect the most important testimonies of the victims, both from letters and testimonies before the commission, as part of the preliminary investigation, possibly supplement them with other documents in their possession and send them all to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
Only once the above is done, can the CDF start an investigation that could lead to Paweł M. being dismissed from the priesthood.
Commenting on the Dominican’s decision to wait for the civil investigation and trial to be completed before considering expelling Paweł M. from the order, Dohnalik underlined that according to the guidelines of the Polish Bishops Conference, that process “should continue to the extent possible (no. 13 of the Guidelines),” and the Dominicans are not obliged to wait.
“In this case, these are canonical offenses related to the administration of the sacrament of Penance, and it does not hurt to complete the investigation and finally report the matter formally to the CDF, something that should have been done 20 years ago,” Dohnalik said, especially since the civil law in Poland doesn’t touch on breaking the seal of confession.
Once a formal case is sent to the CDF, it will be the Vatican that will decide what to do next: Starting a court trial or an administrative criminal trial, waiting for the end of the civil criminal trial, or even, Dohnalik said, “taking into account the exceptional severity of the crimes committed by Paweł M. – bring the matter directly to the Holy Father for the purpose of expulsion from the clergy.”
“However,” Dohnalik emphasized, “the failure to formally report the matter to CDF is one of the greatest omissions that the commission rightly accused the Dominican authorities and their lawyers of. Really, there is no point in waiting, more so as the commission has already done an excellent job of investigating the case.”
Putting people first
One of the report’s main human recommendations is to embrace the victims’ pain.
Those physically hurt by the friar are in the process of mediation and asking for financial compensation remain in close contact with the order. They are also seeking reform and projects to heal all victims of Paweł M. and prevent such abuse in the future.
The report nevertheless proved there are many more people hurt by Paweł M., mainly psychologically.
Even though the independent commission have their contact details, the province has never reached out to them.
One of them wrote in an editorial published in Więź on October 19: “In return for opening old wounds caused by Paweł M. and the emotional swing connected with it, I only received disregard from the Dominicans in return.”
Weronika, who is in touch with order, is patiently waiting for the compensation process with the Dominicans to be over, which for her would mean “to being able to close another chapter of the story.”
She also feels that the months leading to the release of the report showed her she was not alone: “I have many people who showed closeness, love and care. And I am grateful to them for helping me get through one of the most difficult times in my entire life.”
One of the people Weronika mentioned is the Papal Almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who paid her a visit in August.
“He didn’t say much, he just expressed his closeness, and he listened, which meant more than a thousand words to me,” she told Crux. During that trip, Krajewski also met Sister Małgorzata, one of the more recent victims of Paweł M.
Now, after the release of the report, Weronika would like to go to Rome to meet the head of the order, Father Gerard Timoner.
“I would just like him to see my face, not because I am a victim, not because I am a number in the Dominican horrific statistics of Paweł M., but because I have a face, I have a smile for him, despite all that I experienced from his brother,” Weronika told Crux.
“But, most of all, I have hopes that our case will help the Order and the entire Church to deal with such cases. I have a story to tell, and stories are best heard in person,” she said.
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