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How Poland became a ‘laboratory’ for ‘Vos estis’

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the release of Vos estis lux mundi, an apostolic letter establishing a mechanism for holding bishops to account for the mishandling of abuse cases. 

Catholics pray in Poznań Cathedral, Poland, in 2018. © Mazur/

Ahead of the May 9 anniversary, there is growing discussion of whether the text — whose norms were made permanent last year — has proven effective. 


The debate about Vos estis lux mundi is often focused on the U.S. 

That’s understandable, given that the scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick contributed to its creation, U.S. Church leaders such as Cardinal Blase Cupich are believed to have influenced the document, and a significant number of U.S. bishops have faced Vos estis investigations over the past five years. 

It also makes sense to study the text’s impact in the U.S. because it has the greatest number of Catholics of any country except Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines, along with over 250 active bishops.

But to get a fuller sense of Vos estis’ influence it’s worth considering another, smaller nation: Poland, which has been described as a “laboratory” for the norms.

Although Poland is comparatively small, it still occupies a significant place in the Catholic world. The homeland of St. John Paul II has the world’s ninth-largest Catholic population. There are around 35 million Catholics in the country, compared to the roughly 64 million in the U.S., and Poland has almost 100 active bishops.

So how has Vos estis been applied in the country?

Poland on the eve of ‘Vos estis’

On May 11, 2019, just two days after the publication of Vos estis, a two-hour Polish documentary called “Tell No One” was posted to YouTube. 

The film, created by the brothers Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, lifted the lid on clerical abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church in Poland. Five and a half hours after it was uploaded, it had been viewed more than a million times. 

The documentary heralded what Polish Catholics refer to as the local Church’s “Spotlight moment,” a reference to the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism unit, whose reporting on the Boston archdiocese triggered the 2002 abuse crisis in the U.S. Church.

In June 2019, the month that Vos estis entered into force for a three-year experimental period, Archbishop Charles Scicluna traveled to Poland to address the bishops. 

The Maltese churchman — who helped to shape the norms as adjunct secretary of the Vatican’s doctrine office, which oversees abuse cases — challenged Polish bishops to take up the new tools to combat abuse offered by the Holy See.

“He forced us to examine our conscience,” a Polish bishop told the journalist Paulina Guzik after the meeting.

In October 2019, Poland’s bishops established the St. Joseph Foundation to promote safeguarding and support abuse survivors. 

Then Vos estis cases began flooding in.

A chronology of cases

Tomasz Krzyżak, a journalist at Poland’s Rzeczpospolita (“Republic”) newspaper, has compiled a detailed chronology of investigations of Polish bishops since Vos estis’ promulgation.

His account begins with three cases in which bishops were investigated following accusations of abuse:

  • The Kraków auxiliary Bishop Jan Szkodoń was publicly accused of abusing a minor in February 2020. The apostolic nunciature said in July 2021 that the accusation was “not proven.” Szkodoń retired in March 2022, at the age of 75.

  • Bishop Marek Mendyk of Świdnica was accused in August 2022 of sexually abusing a minor 30 years earlier, before he became a bishop. He strenuously denied the allegation, asked his metropolitan archbishop to investigate the facts, and filed a lawsuit for defamation against the publication that reported the claim. The Vatican reportedly ended an investigation into the claims against Mendyk in May 2023, “due to the lack of credible and irrefutable evidence.” Mendyk told Rzeczpospolita that he received the Holy See’s decision in fall 2023.

Krzyżak has also recorded 15 cases in which Polish bishops have faced investigation following claims of negligence in the handling of abuse cases:

  • Bishop Henryk Tomasik of Radom was publicly accused of negligence in June 2020. He retired on his 75th birthday in January 2021. The Vatican reportedly identified “certain irregularities” in the handling of abuse, but there was no official confirmation of the investigation’s outcome.

  • Bishop Stanisław Napierała, who led the Diocese of Kalisz from 1992 to 2012, was accused of negligence in June 2020. A year later, the Polish Church said that the Vatican had identified “unintentional negligence” in only one of the cases. There were no sanctions, but Napierała was invited to donate to the St. Joseph Foundation and refrain from attending public celebrations.

  • Archbishop Wiktor Skworc of Katowice requested an investigation in August 2020 into allegations that he had covered up abuse when he was Bishop of Tarnów from 1998 to 2011. In July 2021, following the probe, Skworc requested a coadjutor archbishop, resigned from bishops’ conference positions, and said he would contribute from private funds to Tarnów diocese’s safeguarding expenses. He retired as Archbishop of Katowice in May 2023, shortly after his 75th birthday.

  • Bishop Andrzej Dziuba of Łowicz was reported for alleged negligence to the Vatican, which authorized his metropolitan to conduct an investigation, which was completed by October 2020. No outcome has been announced.

  • Archbishop Sławoj Leszek Głódź, who led the Gdańsk archdiocese from 2008 to August 2020, was subject to an investigation that ended in November 2020. The Vatican announced sanctions against Głódź in March 2021, including an order to live outside the archdiocese, a ban on attending public celebrations or events, and a request to donate to the St. Joseph Foundation. Głódź was elected as a village mayor later that year.

  • Archbishop Andrzej Dzięga of Szczecin-Kamień was known from January 2021 to be facing an investigation into his actions as bishop of Sandomierz from 2002 to 2009. He resigned as Archbishop of Szczecin-Kamień three years later, on Feb. 24, 2024, at the age of 71, citing health reasons. After an outcry, the apostolic nunciature to Poland clarified that his resignation followed the negligence investigation.

  • Bishop Jan Tyrawa resigned as bishop of Bydgoszcz in May 2021, at the age of 72. The apostolic nunciature said that he submitted his resignation after an investigation for negligence and in light of “other difficulties in managing the diocese.” No information was released concerning possible sanctions.

  • Bishop Stefan Cichy, head of the Legnica diocese from 2005 to 2014, was reported in November 2021 to have been subject to an investigation that concluded he had acted negligently. Church authorities neither confirmed nor denied the report.

Even this extensive list doesn’t show the full picture of Vos estis’ application in Poland, as the document applies not only to bishops, but also to religious superiors. Religious orders, which play a prominent role in Polish Catholic life, have also been shaken by abuse scandals in recent years.

Why so many cases?

While it’s difficult to know precisely how many bishops worldwide have faced Vos estis investigations since 2019, the norms seem to have been applied more often in Poland than any other nation except the U.S. — or, at least, in a more public fashion.

Why has Vos estis been employed so often in Poland? Local Catholics say that the timing of its publication was a major factor. It appeared at the very moment that the abuse crisis engulfed the Polish Church. 

In 2019, Polish Catholics had the feeling that the Vatican was handing them a powerful tool for episcopal accountability just as their hierarchy was shown to be riddled with negligent bishops.

Another notable factor is that there were bishops who were prepared to take a lead. One who is often cited is Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the Archbishop of Gniezno and ex officio Primate of Poland.

Polak has served since March 2019 as the Polish bishops’ delegate for the protection of children and young people. He broke ranks in in May 2020 by reporting negligence allegations against Bishop Janiak. This was clear from the reaction of Janiak, who wrote a furious letter to his fellow bishops a month later, denouncing Polak’s action. 

Rzeczpospolita’s Tomasz Krzyżak told The Pillar: “It seems to me that Poland has become a testing ground for Vos estis.” 

“Its introduction coincided in our country with a wave of disclosures after the Sekielski films. It is not without significance that the first denunciation was made by Archbishop Wojciech Polak as a delegate.”

Yet some Polish Catholics suggest that Polak is something of an outlier in a bishops’ conference that remains largely apathetic in the face of the abuse crisis. In their view, the bishops don’t deserve too much credit for the frequent recourse to Vos estis.

A more pertinent reason for the high number of cases, they suggest, is Poland’s lively and combative media, which has kept the spotlight on clerical abuse and cover-ups since 2019. Significantly, Vos estis probes have followed not only secular media reporting, but also investigations by Catholic journalists. 

Abuse victims have been another important driver of Vos estis cases. Their willingness to speak out in the media has helped to galvanize investigations. They are also believed to have reported several bishops directly to Church authorities, using the provisions of the 2019 document, which underlines that “any person can submit a report,” not just bishops.  

Comparisons with the US Church

But despite the large number of cases, Polish Catholics tend to think that the local Church lags far behind the U.S. in its response to abuse.

They point out that the U.S. bishops published their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (Dallas Charter) in 2002 and the John Jay Report, on the nature and scope of clerical abuse, appeared in 2004. 

They see no comparable efforts by the Polish bishops to hold themselves accountable, five years into a scandal that has profoundly damaged the Church’s reputation among Poles.

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“In the U.S., the wave of disclosures took place back in the days of John Paul, when there were no regulations like today,” Krzyżak told The Pillar in a Feb. 26 email.

“The process of informing the public went differently in our country. First, the apostolic nunciature gave information, then it began to dump it on the bishops who were investigating.”

“But this process was stopped in the fall of 2021, after the ad limina visit of Polish bishops to Rome. Archbishop Gądecki complained then that giving information about punishments for hierarchs meant ‘civil death’ for them. Since then, they have been giving information, but when pressed.”

So in Krzyżak’s view, the Church in Poland has become less and less communicative about the results of Vos estis investigations. 

The most recent case seems to support his contention. As mentioned above, Archbishop Andrzej Dzięga initially claimed that he had stepped down this month as Archbishop of Szczecin-Kamień following a “radical weakening of my condition.” 

But public pressure prompted the apostolic nunciature to issue a terse statement confirming that the resignation came after “an investigation by the Holy See into the management of the diocese, and in particular the negligence referred to in the papal document Vos Estis Lux Mundi.”

Concern about the lack of public communication concerning Vos estis cases is not confined to Poland, of course, and is also frequently expressed in the U.S.

Unfinished business

Polish Catholics express reservations about the application of Vos estis, while acknowledging that the document has had a significant impact on the local Church.

In an essay marking the text’s third anniversary in 2022, the attorney-at-law Krzysztof Bramorski argued that the brief acknowledgments issued at the end of investigations were inadequate. 

“The practice to date, which consists at best of laconically stating information about the decisions made, even without specifying their nature, is inappropriate and does not serve to build confidence in Church institutions and procedures,” he wrote in the journal Więź (“Link”).

“The announcements published so far do not make it possible not only to determine the circumstances based on which decisions were made, but in most cases even to determine the procedure and stage of proceedings in which they were taken.”

He also criticized the wide variations in the length of investigations. (Krzyżak estimates that most cases last between nine months and two years, but some have dragged on for three years.)

“This is at odds not only with the general, widely accepted and advocated procedural principle of procedural efficiency,” Bramorski wrote, “but also with the clear idea behind the introduction of Vos estis, which emphasizes the fulfillment of the obligations introduced by the new regulations within certain deadlines.”

Bramorski also lamented the perceived leniency of sanctions against bishops who are found negligent.

“There is no doubt that the sanctions imposed on those found guilty of the offenses covered by Vos estis should be penalties, and severe ones at that, subject to enforcement and monitoring of their compliance,” he said. 

“In many cases, unfortunately, this is a fiction, both painfully affecting the victims of offenders and arousing the righteous indignation of the public, including a significant portion of the faithful.” 

“The lack of consequences for perpetrators does not, in effect, serve the effective cleansing of the Church that Pope Francis speaks of, nor does it serve to build confidence in Church activities.”

As Vos estis’ fifth anniversary approaches, there is a strong sense among lay Polish Catholics that the clearout is unfinished — and they cannot afford to wait for the bishops to take a consistent lead if they want to ensure its completion.

Editor’s note: This article was updated March 5, 2024, to include the Vatican’s decision to end an investigation into allegations against Bishop Marek Mendyk in May 2023, “due to the lack of credible and irrefutable evidence.”

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