Sex abuse data from Poland’s Catholic Church is decades too late

These figures detailing allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy do not tell the full story.

The head of Poland's Catholic Church Archbishop Wojciech Polak, right, addresses the media during a news conference in Warsaw, Poland in March 2019. Archbishop Wojciech Polak apologised to survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Church clergy and asked for forgiveness [File: Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo]

Last Monday, Poland’s Catholic Church released new figures of the number of complaints it has received alleging sexual abuse at the hands of its clergy.

In total, 368 complaints were made to the Church between 2018 and 2020 relating to alleged abuse by more than 290 priests and other religious figures. The cases stretch as far back as 1958 and 173 of them concern children under the age of 15, which is the age of consent in Poland.

Following the release of these figures, the head of the Polish Catholic Church, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, apologised to survivors and asked for forgiveness. While some survivors will appreciate this, it does not excuse the fact that Poland’s church has arrived at the issue decades too late.

This is only the second time that Poland’s Catholic Church has released such figures. It did so first in 2019 when it revealed that 382 members of the clergy had been accused of sexually abusing 625 children between 1990 and 2018. The Church says that 42 priests are named in both lists.

While the move is a positive sign that Poland’s church is finally owning up to the issue, there are several problems with these figures, alongside the fact that it has taken decades for the church to release them in the first place.

On one hand, that Poland’s church made these figures public is useful as it provides some data on the issue, although it is widely accepted that abuse cases that come to light are merely the tip of the iceberg.

On average it takes a survivor 24 years to report the abuse they suffered as children, with reasons including a victim’s sense of shame, not recognising what happened to them as abuse or fear of not being believed.

The only public tally of clergy abuse cases in Poland is a map created by activists, which currently registers more than 580 cases covered by the media or which ended in a court judgement. But even those reaching the courts are a minority of cases, often because survivors do not want to relive the trauma in a formal judicial setting where they might have to face their abuser again.

But, beyond the church’s figures themselves, the latest data is limited. The church did not publicly disclose the names of the 292 members of the clergy who are accused of sexual abuse, even in the cases it deemed “credible”.

This appears to be a policy supported by the pope himself in order to protect the “good name” of priests. Yet many dioceses in other countries have voluntarily released this information.

In most of the Polish cases, the church said it has imposed “interim measures” while complaints are being investigated, including temporarily removing the accused from service and preventing their contact with children. But we know from other countries that such priests are often left unsupervised.

The church also failed to explain how it has dealt with the 42 clergy members who appeared in both the 2019 and this week’s lists, in what appear to be cases of repeat offenders.

Withholding the identities of alleged perpetrators and details of the church’s action against them – which appears to be a global church policy – shows that the Polish church is still protecting suspected abusers by shielding their identity.

In Poland, this lack of transparency also extends to how the church investigates abuse complaints. Thirty-nine of the 368 claims were considered “unreliable” and therefore rejected. But how were these decisions reached?

Of the 173 cases concerning under-15s, the church said 148 of them were reported to the police. Twenty-five others were not reported either because the accused have since died or the claims were deemed unsubstantiated or are still being investigated. But at what stage does the church pass on a complaint to state law enforcement authorities? Should it not do so as soon as it becomes aware of suspected abuse?

Moreover, what happened in the cases of abuse of 15-to-17-year-olds? For reasons unclear, while the church’s 2019 report gave some statistics on this age group, the latest data only splits survivors into two age groups: under-15s and over-15s.

Out of the 174 cases in the latter group, 80 percent were not reported to the police. One factor might have been that the adult survivors did not (yet) want to make a police complaint, as is often the case. But where 15-to 17-year-olds are concerned, the imperative should be to notify the authorities.

And why does the church not encourage abuse survivors to report their cases to civil authorities from the outset? Instead, church-run commissions are being increasingly set up globally to receive survivors’ complaints, despite accusations that they are institutionally biased and lack transparency.

For those survivors who do come forward, making a complaint to the church means entrusting the pursuit of justice to the same institution where their abuse took place and which either failed to prevent it or actively covered it up.

In the case of the Polish church, an institution that continues to divulge only limited information on abuse committed within its walls proves that it cannot be trusted. This is, after all, the same institution that is currently refusing to collaborate with Poland’s state inquiry into child sexual abuse, which has had trouble obtaining information from the Polish church.

The church only started to release statistics in 2019 because it was pressured to do so, following a rise in public awareness of the issue.

This was largely thanks to the 2018 film Clergy (Kler) about the dark side of the church, including child abuse, which broke box office records and became Poland’s top-grossing film in history.

Then came the documentary Tell No One (Tylko nie mów nikomu) in 2019, which contained first-hand accounts of abuse by survivors. It detailed how abusers were transferred from parish to parish and continued to have access to children, as well as how bishops blocked survivors and their families from pursuing their claims. The documentary has so far been viewed more than 24 million times.

After the documentary’s release, an opinion poll revealed that almost 90 percent of respondents agreed that the church’s authority had been diminished, while 67 percent thought the church’s response to the scandal was inadequate.

This lack of genuine initiative on the church’s part only reinforces the view that Poland’s church has arrived at the issue far too late to preserve its legitimacy. Two batches of data do not make amends for an institution whose PR strategy has long been to wait out the scandal until it becomes too big to ignore.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.