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The Polish Bishops’ Conference: Zero Tolerance for the Crimes of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy

21 lutego 2019 | 10:12 | Marcin Przeciszewski | Warsaw Ⓒ Ⓟ

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We publish data on the activities of the Church in Poland concerning the prevention of sexual exploitation of minors by members of the clergy. These include assistance to victims, prosecution of perpetrators and development of prevention programs. The Catholic Church is the most advanced institution in this field in our country.

Crimes of paedophilia and child abuse are a grave social problem in Poland. According to the „Report on the Risks to the Safety and Development of Children in Poland. Children Count 2017”, published by the Dajemy Dzieciom Siłę Foundation, 12.4% of children and teenagers between 11 and 17 years of age have experienced at least one form of sexual abuse. According to the statistics of Poland’s Ministry of Justice, in 2017, a total of 2,391 proceedings were instituted under Article 200 of Polish Penal Code (sexual exploitation of minors), while the number of confirmed offences amounted to 1,324; the number of detected offences is growing every year. These figures do not yet reveal the scale of the problem. There are many more victims, as one offender has typically abused several child victims. As a problem affecting the whole society, it requires an adequate response and the development of a prevention system at the national level. Unfortunately, no state institution is thinking about such a nationwide programme.

Offences of sexual abuse of minors by the members of the clergy are a small fraction of the total number. The aggregate number of such crimes on a nationwide scale is not known. It is to be disclosed by the Church in the coming months, based on statistical data submitted by all dioceses and religious congregations. A summary list, covering the period after 1989, is currently being prepared by Poland’s Institute of Statistics of the Catholic Church.

Guidelines of the Polish Bishops’ Conference – zero tolerance procedure

For the past ten years, the Polish Episcopate has taken systematic efforts to eliminate said offences in line with the „zero tolerance” policy. In 2009, Polish bishops were one of the first Churches on our continent to adopt guidelines on how to proceed in cases of sexual exploitation of minors. These guidelines were later revised in accordance with the 2011 circular of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Holy See. Guidelines for preliminary canonical investigations of allegations of acts against the sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor under eighteen years of age were adopted by the Polish Episcopate in 2014 and were approved by the Holy See. They have been in force since.
„The Church recognizes sexual abuse as grave sins, demanding an unambiguous and disciplinary response towards those who have been proven to have committed such acts. They call for the healing work of penance, both by the perpetrator and the entire Church community and for the reparation of the harm done to the victim and the community. No effort should be spared to make sure that similar situations do not occur in the future,” read the Guidelines, which further establish detailed rules of conduct, in accordance with the stringent strategy adopted by the universal Church and carried out under the supervision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (former Holy Office) of the Holy See.
In June 2017, the Guidelines of the Bishops’ Conference were adjusted to the amendments to the Polish Penal Code, which impose an obligation to report each case of such an offence to state law enforcement agencies.

Assistance to victims as a priority

The primary aspect addressed in the Guidelines is the treatment of the victims. Details are discussed in Annex 1, where we read: „Concern for victims of sexual abuse is a fundamental act of justice on the part of the Church community, which feels pain and shame for the harm done to children and young people.”
Church superiors (diocesan bishops or superiors of religious provinces) are obliged to provide spiritual and psychological assistance to the victim and, if necessary, provide legal advice and ensure a sense of security upon receipt of information about the sexual abuse of a minor. They are also obliged to take actions aimed at preventing the perpetrator from continuing the crime and to work towards restoring trust and a proper climate for the continuation of pastoral work in the ecclesiastical community.

A person (bishop’s delegate) or a commission receiving the report from the victim or his guardians is to ensure “the maximum sense of security, show a willingness to listen with good will and accept the truth, and reassure them that by revealing their suffering they also help the Church to restore the violated moral order.”

Spiritual and psychological assistance should also be extended to those in the immediate vicinity of the victim, in particular to members of the victim’s family. When offering psychological help, the Church superior may also use the help of specialists from outside the structures associated with the Catholic Church and should cover the related costs.

The issue of compensation for victims is often raised in public debate. In the opinion of the Nie lękajcie się! Foundation, compensation should be paid by the Diocesan Curia or other authorities of the Church. The Church acts here in accordance with Polish law, which imposes the obligation to pay compensation to the victim on the perpetrators themselves. The Church moreover respects the judgments of secular courts in cases of interpretation differing from this principle.

Coordinator of the Polish Bishops’ Conference and diocesan and religious delegates for the protection of children and young people

In June 2013, the Polish Bishops’ Conference appointed a national coordinator for the protection of children and young people. This position was entrusted to the Jesuit Fr. Adam Żak. The scope of his duties is very broad. Among others, he is responsible for training delegates, i.e. priests responsible for receiving applications and helping victims in dioceses and religious orders. He supports the activities of persons responsible for prevention of sexual abuse of minors in Church organizational units and in the educational activities of the Church.

In addition, the duties of Fr. Żak include the development and dissemination of „quality standards” for the activities of Church institutions in the field of prevention. In addition, he develops nationwide training programs for people working with children and youth within the Church. Finally, his tasks include cooperation with the media in order to “create a favourable atmosphere for the protection of children and young people from sexual exploitation in the whole society.”

Thanks to the initiative of the coordinator for the protection of children and young people and the determination of the Episcopate, delegates for the protection of children and young people have been appointed and properly trained in each Polish diocese and many religious congregations. They are responsible for collecting reports concerning sexual abuse of minors by a priest or a religious from victims or their families as well as for organizing psychological, legal and pastoral assistance for them. There are 80 such delegates in Poland. Their names and contact data can be found on websites of most dioceses and religious orders; a full list and contact database can be found on the website of the Child Protection Centre. Apart from the delegates, 69 specialized diocesan and religious chaplains have been appointed, ready to provide spiritual and pastoral assistance to the victims and their families.

Child Protection Centre

The Child Protection Centre was set up in March 2014 under the auspices of Fr. Adam Żak SJ. Affiliated to the Ignatianum University in Krakow, the Centre develops and provides training and educational programs in psychology, pedagogy and spirituality related to the sexual abuse of minors, aimed at prevention and development of best practices for different pastoral outreach communities. The principal objective is to provide assistance in creating a safe environment for children and young people.

At the same time as the training of delegates and pastors appointed by superiors, the Child Protection Centre began systematic training for diocesan and religious priests working in pastoral care. Fr. Żak explains in an interview with the Polish Catholic News Agency: „We receive many invitations from bishops and religious superiors. In many places training concerning the protection of children and young people becomes a permanent element of formation after ordination. Moreover, many diocesan and religious seminaries offer training programs for seminarians.”

In this way, thanks to the Child Protection Centre, more than 3,000 diocesan and religious priests have so far been trained. The figure does not include religious sisters and lay people who are involved in the education of children and young people on a daily basis.

In cooperation with the Ignatianum University, in 2016 the Child Protection Centre initiated a specialist three-semester postgraduate program in the prevention of sexual violence against children and adolescents. The first course was completed by 21 people, and in October 2018, 25 students started the second edition of the program. The courses are designed for laity and clergy responsible for the care and re-socialisation centres run by the Church in Poland, educators, pedagogues and school psychologists, catechists, psychologists and psychotherapists working with children and young people as well as social workers.

Program participants acquire knowledge and skills such as the recognition of signs of sexual abuse and the design of aid measures for children and adolescents at risk of or affected by such abuse. The students learn about prevention programmes dealing with this subject and acquire knowledge, skills and competences concerning rules, procedures and response practices as well as therapy and support practices applied to persons sexually abused as children or adolescents. Students of the program moreover learn the principles of conversation with children and young people at risk or affected by sexual violence and their families.
The study program is intended to provide the staff of educational and care facilities run by dioceses and religious provinces with appropriate qualifications and competencies to build an environment that is safe for children and young people.

Prevention systems in dioceses and religious orders

The bishops also adopted a separate document on the principles of prevention against cases of sexual exploitation of minors that may occur in the Church. The document was adopted during the 365th Plenary Assembly of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, convened on 10–11 June 2014.

It recalls that “all the superior ecclesiastical structures for the pastoral care of children and young people, Catholic organisations, associations of educational institutions run by units of the Church must adopt and implement specific rules, forms and structures of prevention appropriate to the various types of work with children and young people.”

At the meeting of the Council of Diocesan Bishops at Jasna Góra on 25 August 2018, it was decided that a programme of prevention against crimes of sexual exploitation of children and young people will be developed and implemented in every Polish diocese. This decision was additionally confirmed at the plenary meeting of the Episcopate in Płock on 26 September 2018.

As a result, special „prevention units” were set up in each diocese and in autumn 2018 the Child Protection Centre began systematic training for their members. The training is now organised at archdiocesan level for the dioceses that are part of the archdiocese. By January 2019, such training sessions were organized for prevention units from the Military Ordinariate and the following archdioceses: Przemyśl-Warsaw (Greek Catholic), Łódź, Gniezno, Poznań, Częstochowa, Katowice, Wrocław, and Szczecin-Kamień. They will be continued in the coming months in the remaining archdioceses.

Diocesan prevention programs will cover all sectors of work with children and youth, i.e. family ministry, catechetical departments, Catholic schools and kindergartens, pastoral faculties, Caritas, and seminaries. They will also include the ongoing formation of priests. Similar prevention programs are to be established in religious orders and congregations.

„It is important that all those who in a given diocese or religious order have contact with children and young people be able to take adequate action in various situations, should they notice any possible risks,” explains Primate of Poland Archbishop Wojciech Polak, who is also Chairman of the Commission for the Clergy of the Polish Episcopate, in charge of these matters.

Prevention and action at the stage of priestly formation

The third annex of the Guidelines reminds us that formation for the priesthood “must not fail to adequately address the priest’s sexuality and to prepare him for a life of chastity and celibacy.” Moreover, „the formation of a proper sexual identity should be done by consciously accepting this aspect and directing it towards deeper integration with the emotional and spiritual ones.”

The document indicates that “the way to discern possible difficulties in the sexual sphere should begin already at the moment of accepting a candidate for a seminary or a religious order.” The applicant should undergo psychological examination, in-depth interview and a test that will give the educators an insight into the level of sexual maturity and possible disorders. The document states that candidates should not be admitted to a seminary or religious institute if they are found to have “a sexual disturbance, including a deep-rooted homosexual orientation.”

At the stage of priestly formation, lectures and conferences must also address the subject of “developing mature sexuality.” This subject matter should also be taken into account in spiritual direction and other activities aimed at the development of a priest’s spiritual life.

In addition, “candidates for the priesthood or religious life should receive the necessary knowledge of the responsibility of the Church and the state for crimes against the sixth Commandment, in particular those committed against minors, and of the procedures in force under common law and local law with regard to contact with victims of sexual abuse committed by clergy.”

Procedures for the prosecution of suspects

The Guidelines adopted by the Polish Bishops’ Conference lay out that “persons found guilty of violations of the rights of children and young people, irrespective of their function or office [in the Church], shall be held accountable in line with the relevant procedures established by a competent ecclesiastical authority, with respect of the law in force in Poland.”

When a bishop (in the case of a diocesan priest) or a religious superior (in the case of a religious), receives „at least a probable message” that a clergyman has committed such an act, he is obliged to carry out a preliminary canonical investigation. He should also immediately inform the Holy See, namely the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so that the matter may be acted upon.

Moreover, since July 2017 it has been mandatory to report the case to the state judiciary. Annex no. 2 of the Guidelines specifies it in the following way: “If the contents of the report indicate the possibility of committing a prohibited act, described in Article 197 § 3 or 4 of the Penal Code, Article 198 of the Penal Code, Article 200 of the Penal Code, and the report may be considered credible, through a designated proxy the Church superior notifies the competent authority appointed for the prosecution of crimes. There is no such obligation if the Church superior is aware that law enforcement authorities have already been notified of this offence.”

On the other hand, in relation to a suspect clergyman, the Church superior is obliged to „remove him from the duties resulting from the entrusted offices, services or tasks in order to prevent a possible continuation of the crime; provide appropriate psychological and therapeutic care and indicate the place of residence and provide the necessary subsistence resources.”

The first stage of canonical (intra-ecclesial) conduct is a preliminary investigation, conducted at the level of the diocese or the order. After the completion of the preliminary canonical investigation, as a result of which the credibility of the report was established, the Church superior submits the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Further proceedings are under the control of the Holy See in order to ensure their effectiveness and avoid covering them up which, regrettably, happened in the past.
At a later stage, an ecclesiastical court is established which, if the offence is proven, decides on the type and level of punishment of the priest or religious.

Church penalties

As to the penalties set out in Canon Law, the most serious of them is dismissal of a clergyman from clerical state. Other penalties include suspension in priestly ministry for a specified period of time, restriction of ministry practice, prohibition of contacts with children and young people, etc.

Church documents – both those adopted by the Holy See and by the Polish Bishops’ Conference – also indicate the need for cooperation between the Church and the state in the prosecution of such crimes.
Therefore, a clergyman who has committed an offence of sexual abuse against a minor under the age of 15 is subject to a double sanction, one imposed by Canon Law and the other by state law. Church regulations are more restrictive than state regulations. Protection covers not only persons up to the age of 15, as in state law, but also persons under the age of 18.

The radical approach of the Church is further confirmed by the fact that, irrespective of imposing penalties on members of the clergy, in June 2016 Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Come una madre amorevole, or As a loving mother, imposing sanctions on bishops and religious superiors for negligence in cases involving clerical sexual abuse. The Pope defines in it the accountability of diocesan Bishops, Eparchs of Eastern Churches and those who have the responsibility for a Particular Church for failing to respond to cases of sexual abuse of minors by priest and religious. The motu proprio defines sanctions for bishops and religious superiors, including removal from ecclesiastical office and dismissal from clerical state, as has been most recently the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, former cardinal and Archbishop of Washington D.C.

The Church in Poland apologises

“We apologize to God, the victims of exploitation, their families and the Church community for all the harm done to children and young people and their loved ones,” wrote Polish bishops in the Position Paper of the Polish Bishops’ Conference on sexual exploitation of minors by some priests, announced on 19 November 2018. The contents of the document correspond to the Letter of Pope Francis to the People of God from a few months before.

The Polish bishops further observe: “We ask the Lord to give us light, strength and courage to vigorously combat moral and spiritual corruption, the root cause of sexual exploitation of minors. We ask the Lord to give effect to our efforts to create an open and child- and youth-friendly environment in the Church.”

The Polish bishops admit that the problem is becoming a source of particular scandal when the perpetrators are members of the clerical state. We further read in the Position Paper: “Disappointment and indignation is all the greater and more painful because instead of caring love and companionship in seeking the closeness of Jesus, children experience violence and brutal deprivation of their dignity.”

Pastors of the Church in Poland also admit that „in order for the actions undertaken to bring the expected fruits of purification and emergence of a culture focused on the true welfare of children and young people, it is essential to unite the efforts of all members of the Church community to learn to recognize and eliminate, wherever possible, all these factors that are conducive to crime.” The bishops therefore urge that „without waiting for the necessary legal regulations, all institutions run by the Church should become pioneers of prevention.” The same appeal is made to those responsible for Catholic movements and youth organisations.

At the same time, the bishops thank „all those who, out of concern for the holiness of the Church and Her shepherds, courageously reveal sin and the crime of abuse.”

Meetings the victims

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki – in response to Franciszek’s appeal that the presidents of bishops’ conferences meet with the victims before the meeting with the Pope in Rome in February – had a personal meeting with 28 victims of sexual abuse by clergy as children or adolescents. They were invited by diocesan and religious curias from different parts of Poland.

The President of the Polish Episcopate emphasizes that: „Each of these meetings was important to me, each of them broadened my knowledge and made me ever more sensitive to the wrong incurred. Archbishop Gądecki observes as follows: „The meetings confirmed my conviction that the various initiatives taken so far by the Polish Episcopal Conference were right and that even more intense efforts are needed to adequatly respond to the painful facts of the past and present and to prevent similar ones in the future.”

Penance liturgies for the sins of sexual exploitation

The first such liturgy took place on June 20, 2014 in the Jesuit Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Krakow. It was attended by the Primate of Poland Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the Apostolic Nuncio in Poland Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Metropolitan of Krakow Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Bishop of Bielsko-Żywiec Roman Pindel, Bishop of Opole Andrzej Czaja, and Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow Grzegorz Ryś. The President of the liturgy, Bishop Piotr Libera said: “Ashamed and repentant, we ask for forgiveness. We ask God and we ask people who have been wronged by priests!”

30 June 2015. Francis appealed to the national bishops’ conferences to establish a Day of Prayer and Penance for the sins of sexual exploitation of minors by clergy. The Polish Bishops’ Conference in October 2016 decided to organize this Day in all Polish dioceses on the first Friday of Lent. In 2017 and 2018 such celebrations took place in most cathedrals.

The Polish Episcopate revisited the matter at its plenary meeting on 19 November 2018 and confirmed that the first Friday of Lent will be every year celebrated as the „Day of prayer of recompense for the harm done to children and young people by immorally living priests and religious and of fasting” in all Polish dioceses. This year it will take place on March 8th with the involvement of parishes, which will earlier receive liturgical aids developed by the Child Protection Centre in Krakow.

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