WARSAW, Poland — The fallout over an explosive television report alleging that St. John Paul II covered up clergy sex abuse cases escalated Thursday, with Poland’s Catholic Church strongly defending “one of the greatest Poles” and the Polish government inviting the U.S. ambassador for talks.
A report this week on TVN24, which is owned by the U.S. company Warner Bros. Discovery, named three priests whom John Paul allegedly moved around during the 1970s after they were accused of abusing minors. At the time, John Paul was Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the head of the church in Krakow in southern Poland.
John Paul is revered in the predominantly Catholic country for his role in helping to bring down communism, and the TVN report ignited a national debate about his legacy at a time when the Polish Catholic Church overall has been undergoing a reckoning with its own record of clergy sexual abuse. A heated debate erupted Thursday in parliament debating his legacy.
Government figures, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, have strongly defended the late pope as a national hero and the country’s highest moral authority. Leftist politicians seized on allegations that he knowingly protected predator priests, with some calling for John Paul’s name to be taken off street and school names.
On Thursday, the head of the Polish bishops conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, entered the fray, strongly defending the late pope and appealing to “all people of good will” to not destroy his legacy. Gadecki celebrated Mass at John Paul II’s tomb at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, praying for those who were seeking to discredit the pontiff.
Gadecki joined some critics in casting doubt on the report’s credibility, as some of the documentation it quoted came from the files of the communist-era secret security service that had been seeking to compromise the church.
“The Polish pope has been a moral yardstick, a teacher of the faith and an intercessor in heaven” for millions of Poles,” Gadecki said. “It comes as a shock that attempts are made to discredit John Paul II himself and his legacy, all in the name of concern with truth and good.”
Wojtyla served as archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978, when he became Pope John Paul II. He died in 2005 and was declared a saint in 2014 following a fast-track process.
While defending John Paul, Gadecki said his “sainthood and greatness” don’t mean that he “could not have made mistakes.” But he also noted that at the time, the church and society at large dealt differently with abuse, and with different regulations. “There was a different social consciousness and customary ways of solving problems,” he said.
Separately, the dispute gained a diplomatic dimension, when Poland’s Foreign Ministry invited U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski for discussion about the activity of a television station. While TVN wasn’t named, the ministry said the talks were in connection with the activities of a television station “which is an investor in the Polish market,” a clear reference to TVN. TVN was at one point the largest ever U.S. business investment in Poland, and its coverage is often critical of the ruling party, with investigations into wrongdoing by authorities.
The ruling party has sought in the past to pass legislation that would strip the U.S. owner of its controlling stake in the company, but the law was vetoed by President Andrzej Duda shortly before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine amid U.S. pressure.
The ministry statement said that potential effects of the reports “are identical to the goals of hybrid war aimed at leading to divisions and tensions in Polish society.”
An earlier version of the Foreign Ministry’s statement said the U.S. ambassador was being “summoned,” but it was changed to say “invited.” A summoning would indicate that the ambassador was being given a note of protest. The Foreign Ministry spokesman told Polish media that an invitation was a better reflection of the nature of the meeting.
John Paul II isn’t the only pope under scrutiny for dealing with predator priests.
His immediate successor, Benedict XVI, who had a much stricter stance and defrocked hundreds of abusive priests, was faulted for his handling of four cases while he was Munich archbishop by an independent report commissioned by the diocese.
Accusations of having failed to react to cases of abuse by priests in his native Argentina and in Chile, while bishop and then pontiff, have been also addressed to Pope Francis.
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Nicole Winfield in Rome, and Geir Moulson in Berlin, contributed to this report.