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In Polish abuse report, numbers don't tell the whole story

The Polish bishops’ conference released a report June 28 on recent allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors in the country. 

The report covers allegations received between July 1, 2018 and December 31, 2020. During that period, the Church in Poland received 368 allegations of clerical sexual abuse, most of which allege abuse that occurred before the reporting period, and about half of which are still under investigation. 

But the reported numbers probably don’t tell the whole story.

Polish bishops offer Mass June 12 at the Basilica of St Mary in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Poland. Credit: episkopatpl via flickr. CC BY SA 2,0

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There is reason to believe the report’s numbers are artificially low, and the report doesn’t discuss bishops sanctioned or under investigation for mishandling abuse allegations in Poland. Those aspects are key to understanding the serious state of affairs for the Church in Poland, and key to Church leaders’ discernment of a path forward.

Much like the annual report on the implementation of the Dallas Charter produced in the United States for the USCCB, the Polish report contains statistics about the number and nature of allegations received during a particular reporting period. But unlike the American annual report the Polish report contains no analysis or recommendations. Moreover, since the Polish episcopate does not produce reports on a regular basis, it is difficult to get a sense of trends in abuse rates and reporting rates over time. 


By the numbers

Of the 368 allegations received during the reporting period, only 69 were alleged to have taken place since 2018; the rest took place between 1958 and 2017. Of all 368 allegations, 51% are still under investigation, while 10% have been rejected as “unfounded.” 

Approximately half (47%) of reported victims were under the age of 15 — the age of consent in Polish civil law —  at the time of the alleged abuse. The report indicates that of the 173 cases involving victims under the age of 15, 148 (86%) were reported to law enforcement. Of the remaining cases not reported to law enforcement: in 13 cases the alleged abuser was already dead at the time of reporting, eight cases were deemed false or unfounded, and four were still in the initial stage of investigation. The victims of alleged abuse are split evenly between boys and girls, among both those younger than 15 and among older alleged victims.

The last report on abuse from the Polish bishops’ conference was released in 2019 and covered the years 1950-2018. That report revealed 382 cases of alleged abuse, involving 198 victims under the age of 15, and 184 victims between the ages of 15 and 18. 

Given that Poland currently has some 30,000 priests (roughly a quarter of all priests in Europe) and some 33,000,000 Catholics (well over 90% of the country), the reported numbers remain relatively low when compared to some other countries. 

In the United States, for example, the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report alone recorded more than 1,000 cases in just six dioceses. In Germany, which has only about two-thirds as many Catholics as Poland, the number of reported cases of sexual abuse of minors is around five times the total cases reported in Poland. Unlike in Poland, victims of reported abuse in both Germany and the United States have been predominantly boys. 

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The whole picture

But the reported numbers hardly paint the whole picture of the abuse crisis in Poland. For one, there is reason to believe that the reported numbers remain artificially low. The issue of clerical sexual abuse exploded in Poland back in 2018, sparked by the release of a documentary film, “Tell No One.” Last summer, the Polish government launched a commission to investigate the sexual abuse of minors. Given the intense attention on the issue in Polish media and culture, it’s not surprising that the number of reports has jumped.

How much the statistical differences reveal about the underlying reality of historical abuse in different countries is impossible to know. Ecclesial and clerical cultures, differences in priestly formation and social status, social stigma, differences in the support and resources available to victims who do report—there are innumerable reasons not to make apples to apples comparisons between reported cases in different countries. 

The coordinator for the protection of children and youth for the Polish bishops, Fr. Adam Żak, SJ, offered a sobering reminder last week that reports of abuse are likely to continue to climb: “The trend is not downward; it remains at a fairly high level of numbers.” 

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There are other indicators—beyond reporting statistics—of just how serious the crisis of clerical sexual abuse is for Poland. 

Last summer, the Holy See imposed sanctions against the 97-year-old retired Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz. (Gulbinowicz died in November.) Since then, at least seven other Polish prelates have faced investigations pertaining to negligence in handling of abuse allegations, mostly under Vos estis lux mundi, with all but one ultimately being sanctioned by the Vatican. 

Late last month, the Holy Father sent Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco to Poland to personally look into allegations of negligence by longtime secretary of Pope John Paul II and former Archbishop of Krakόw, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz.

Last week, Archbishop Wojchiech Polack, Primate of Poland and Archbishop of Gniezno, cautioned that the statistics revealed in the recent report, “do not express the full depth of the drama of sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by some clergymen.” 

Polack’s words reflect that the suffering of victims of abuse, and the damage to the Church as a whole, cannot be reduced to statistics. But they, along with the report, also indicate that, when it comes to addressing clerical sexual abuse, the Church in Poland is closer to the beginning of this crisis than the end.

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