The Jesuits in Poland are going through a seismic upheaval after the abuse of a minor and a vulnerable adult by a charismatic youth and retreat minister was revealed by Więź magazine in mid-November.
In a statement released on Nov. 22, the Southern Poland Province of the Jesuits said that Father Maciej Sz. [his full name cannot be used under Polish law] was removed from all ministry and moved to an undisclosed secluded non-Jesuit location where he is forbidden to say Mass or wear clerical garb.
That decision came a week after Więź published a two-part story, “Society of Maciej”, revealed the abuse and the fact that three consecutive Jesuit provincials and the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith failed to act.
“He was her light in the tunnel and that light killed her”
Wiktoria [the names of the victims and their relatives were changed in the Więź article] was a shy teenage girl.
“I was raising the girls on my own,” her mother, Anna, told Crux.
“They didn’t have a father and when Father Maciej appeared in Wiktoria’s life, I saw it as a blessing from God,” she said.
Wiktoria was only starting high school when she joined Magis, a youth ministry funded by Father Maciej right after his studies in Rome. The group was in a picturesque town in south-western Poland – Kłodzko.
“He was a fantastic speaker,” she told Crux. “For me, a girl without father’s authority, he was someone I was really listening to.”
Quickly after Wiktoria joined the ministry, Father Maciej started conversations with her: “He was caressing my hand, he was hugging me, but to be honest, I didn’t see anything bad in it at the moment.”
In 2007, Father Maciej was removed from Kłodzko and sent on a probation year, the last formation year before final Jesuits vows. It was seen as a surprising move by the youth, since for many, he was the most successful minister in years.
When he was saying goodbye to his youth group, in a room filled with dozens of young people, he “showed a bird.”
“He took his pants off, stood on one leg only in his underwear, stretched his hands to the sides and laughed: This is the bird!” Wiktoria recalled, only now understanding the meaning of the obscure joke.
“One of the girls who was at the time hurting herself by cutting her skin left the room almost outraged, commenting that this was obnoxious,” said Wiktoria, now 30.
There was gossip about the possible reason for Father Maciej’s removal from Kłodzko, but Wiktoria and her friends did not see any red flags. At the end of the summer of 2008, when Father Maciej was installed in the Upper-Silesian town of Czechowice-Dziedzice after his probationary year, Wiktoria decided to visit him with a group of her friends.
“We went to see him, we thought it would be fun,” she told Crux.
On the last day of the trip, she felt sick and did not attend a concert with her friends. When she stayed in the Jesuit youth ministry venue alone with Father Maciej, he abused her.
“He came to me, covered me with a sleeping bag that I had with me on this trip and started to touch me, all over, including my intimate parts,” Wiktoria said.
He only stopped when her friends returned from the concert. When Wiktoria came back home, she didn’t tell anyone what happened. Two weeks later, she started to experience panic attacks.
“If you open physically, it will help you open spiritually”
Only two months after abusing Wiktoria, Father Maciej found another victim, 18-year-old Nina.
“I was 18, but mentally I was only a kid,” she told Crux. “I turned 18 six months before the abuse started, and I was still in my final year of high school.”
Her father was living with the family, but was abusive towards Nina’s mother.
“I remember it was the day of my mom’s birthday and I told Father Maciej that this is the day when dad is particularly nasty for my mom, and this is when Father Maciej sat me on his lap for the first time and hugged me closely,” she said.
Quickly it turned into full-scale abuse.
“He was asking me to print the rosary reflections with him, prepare the prayer, anything, only to be with him one on one in his room,” she said.
She was abused multiple times in the room of the Jesuit – “I would see the cross while he was on top of me and I felt like I was standing next to the bed, like it was not happening to me” – she remembered.
After years of therapy, she realized what she was experiencing was dissociation.
In early of 2009, after almost a year of abuse, Nina discovered that her friend had also been abused. She also saw another girl’s palm in Father Maciej’s hand during a youth ministry meeting.
“I thought to myself – this is enough, that girl will be next, and I have to do something,” she said.
She contacted Father Andrzej Migacz, who founded the Magis youth ministry with Father Maciej, and told her story. Migacz immediately informed his provincial, Father Wojciech Ziółek, about the situation.
“I met with Mrs. Nina, I listened to her, and I believed her,” Ziółek told Więź. “But I didn’t have the right to open her wounds again. She wanted to close the case.”
The provincial didn’t record Nina’s testimony when he met with her in January 2010. He removed Father Maciej from youth ministry, which he had promised to Nina. However, he didn’t start a preliminary canonical investigation and even though Nina also warmed that other people, including a minor, may have been harmed, the Southern Poland Jesuit province decided not to look for them.
Father Maciej admitted his guilt both personally to his provincial and in the emails sent to Nina.
In February 2010, Ziółek moved Father Maciej to Zakopane, at first to minister to alcoholics.
However, the priest quickly moved into the retreat ministry run in the same house. He became one of the main Jesuit retreat ministers; he was so charismatic that a famous Polish rapper recorded an online retreat series with him.
Father Maciej had an unlimited access to women during individual spiritual direction while running Ignatian silent retreat weeks at the “Górka” retreat house. The only one who knew about his previous abuse was the house director.
The religious sisters working in the Jesuit house in Zakopane did not know. One of the nuns working there has been verbally abused by Father Maciej, her superior told Więź: “Sexual abuse did not happen only because our sister strongly objected.”
“I was betrayed one more time. And it hurt even more”
While Father Maciej abused Nina in Czechowice-Dziedzice, Wiktoria underwent a psychological breakdown, and started therapy. At some point in 2008, she decided to report the case to Father Witold, who had taken over the youth ministry in Kłodzko from Father Maciej.
“Father Witold told me after listening to my testimony: ‘Maciej is my brother and I need to protect him.’ You know, I felt like you can be a criminal and abuse someone, that’s one thing, but to hear a young kid telling you what your brother did and do nothing? – that’s such an unbelievable betrayal,” Wiktoria told Crux.
After the visit to Father Witold, she stopped going to Church. “I felt like I lost my faith right there when I was betrayed by Father Witold.”
“She couldn’t even enter the church,” Wiktoria’s mother recalled. “She was fainting instantly after crossing the threshold of the church.”
Her psychologist says she reported the case to “the Jesuits,” but she didn’t track anything and today she doesn’t remember to whom exactly she made the report.
“There is nothing on paper before 2014,” Father Jakub Kołacz, the Jesuit provincial of the Southern Poland Province in the years 2014-2020, told Więź.
“If you’d like to track an old case, you need an audit of memory, because there is nothing in the paperwork,” he said.
In 2019, Kołacz decided to dig into the old case of Father Maciej.
“When I was socius [the second-highest ranking member], while Wojciech Ziółek was a provincial, I was telling him – this is the biggest case that we have and this case is unsolved,” he told the magazine.
Kołacz thought the case was unsolved because there has never been a full canonical process.
After a famous documentary by the Sekielski Brothers highlighting abuse in the Church in Poland released in 2019, Kołacz decided to find the victims of Father Maciej, getting their testimony and sending the report to the Vatican through the Jesuit General Curia.
Kołacz removed Father Maciej from the retreat house in Zakopane and placed him in a Jesuit house in Przegorzały, a district of Krakow. As provincial, he restricted Father Maciej from any public ministry, although he was allowed to say Mass privately in the house.
“I found Nina and one more adult victim,” Kołacz told Crux.
“I tried to write down the testimony of Wiktoria, but the only thing I got was the confirmation from her sister, that Wiktoria was abused,” he told Crux. “I was counting on the fact that the Vatican will find her in the full canonical process.”
But the process has never been started.
After sending the documentation to the Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) decide against starting the full process. Canon lawyers told Więź that one possible reason was that the CDF thought that getting the testimony of an underage victim would be “impossible.”
“In the case relating to the minor, the Society of Jesus proposed to start an administrative penal process, but the CDF asked us to impose on [Father Maciej] a penal precept with restriction of ministry with minors,” – Father John Dardis, Diector of Communications at the Office of the General Curia of the Society of Jesus in Rome, wrote to Więź in an email.
The penal precept, the provincial in Krakow confirmed, has been imposed on Father Maciej for two years.
“As regards to the allegations concerning adults,” Dardis added, “the General curia does not normally give specific indications; that is left to the local Province.”
For abusing adults, the local provincial imposed a penance on Father Maciej – the details of the penance remain unknown – and psychological tests.
“The person cannot be charged twice for the same action,” the provincial of Southern Poland Province, Father Jarosław Paszyński, told Więź.
The problem, canon lawyers told Więź, is that Father Maciej has never been formally punished for abusing adults. When he was removed from youth ministry in the Silesia region and moved to Zakopane, there was never a formal preliminary investigation regarding the adult cases.
Dardis added, “the General Curia encouraged the local government to discern the appropriate ministry for [Father Maciej] and to provide adequate spiritual support and psychological therapy. We have also kept ourselves informed about the help offered to the victims by the Province.”
“My life was in pieces, now I got it back”
In October 2021, when the news about the penal precept was delivered to the provincial and to Father Maciej himself, the priest was returned to the ministry in the local parish in Przegorzały, with restrictions against participating in youth ministry and hearing confessions.
He also threw a party in his Jesuit house in Przegorzały, a district in Kraków, Poland, as reported by Więź.
“Only for 724 days I won’t be able to help you lead the youngsters to God,” he told his fellow clerics.
Kołacz, who reported Father Maciej’s case to the Vatican, told Więź: “I felt I was the only one punished.”
“That was probably one of the last occasions for Father Maciej to party,” Więź wrote in their Nov. 14 report.
After the story was published, the Jesuits released a statement saying, “Sympathizing with the victims, we realize that the pain they suffer from the harm done to them is not easy to heal. We want to ensure the readiness to help.”
The Jesuits in Southern Poland asked anyone that may have been harmed by Father Maciej to report to the provincial in Krakow.
Więź authors also reported the abuse of a minor to the Vatican embassy under the terms of Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the 2019 Vatican legislation on clerical abuse.
More members of Magis youth ministry have since spoken up.
“The testimonies of improper behaviors of Father Maciej have been sent to Więź over the last 15 days since the story has been published,” Zbigniew Nosowski, editor in chief, told Crux. However, he added the magazine “did not receive new reports of sexual abuse.”
The aftershocks hit the Jesuit order in Poland
Meanwhile, Jesuit Father Jarosław Paszyński, provincial of the Southern Poland Province, wrote a letter to members of the order saying, “We are all shocked and pained to the core because of the harm suffered by people who were sexually abused by Father Maciej.”
On the Polish Jesuit website, Father Józef Augustyn said, “Our order has been for years at the forefront of fighting sexual abuse in the Church, both in the Holy See and in Poland. Some may tell us now: Time to heal your own house.”
Many young Jesuit took to social media to express their anger and sorrow: “It hurts when you learn such things about a brother – that he hurt those whom he was supposed to lead to God,“ Brother Łukasz Sośniak wrote on Facebook.
But there were critical reactions as well. Father Dariusz Kowalczyk, a Jesuit living in Rome, went on Twitter to criticize the author of Więź article: “You didn’t protect anyone. You didn’t reveal anything new,” he wrote. “It only contributed to the disgust towards the work with youth by many priests devoted to God and people, especially the Jesuits.”
When Nina learned the news that Father Maciej was removed from Krakow and has been sent to a secluded location, awaiting his case to be open again in the General Curia and the Vatican, she wrote to Więź: “We won. He will not hurt anyone else anymore.”
Wiktoria told Crux the news was good to hear.
“For years my life was in pieces. I became a drug addict. I was entering toxic relationships. But now, knowing his actions will have consequences, I got my life back. I am getting married soon. And I am free from this story,” she said.
Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina