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Polish Church leader offers controversial ‘humanitarian’ help to jailed politicians

The president of Poland’s bishops’ conference entered a highly charged and complex political dispute Wednesday, with an offer to mediate on behalf of two jailed politicians.

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, pictured in 2019. Silar via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki wrote a letter Jan. 17 to politicians Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik, who have been sentenced to two years in prison for abuse of power, saying that he was willing to make a “humanitarian intervention” on their behalf. 

But the archbishop has already faced a backlash for his decision, with some Poles accusing the archbishop of partisanship.

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The case of Kamiński and Wąsik, which has generated massive media interest in Poland, has exposed divisions in the judiciary and pitted the new coalition government against the country’s president.

According to a Jan. 17 statement, the archbishop proposed to raise the pair’s plight with Poland’s justice minister. He also addressed the hunger strike that the two men have maintained for several days.

The statement said that Gądecki had told both men that, although “he understood the reason for undertaking such a dramatic form of protest,” they should call off the hunger strike because it “threatens not only their health but also their lives.”

The complicated and long-running dispute centers on Kamiński and Wąsik’s actions when they served respectively as the head and deputy head of Poland’s Central Anticorruption Bureau, from 2006 to 2009.

Both men were sentenced to three years in prison in 2015 for abusing their power by allowing subordinates to use entrapment during the investigation of a prominent populist politician. But before their appeal could be decided, the newly elected President Andrzej Duda issued a pardon. 

The pardon was controversial, as Duda is an ally of Poland’s Law and Justice party, which governed the country from 2015 to 2023, and the two men went on to serve in the Law and Justice government.

In June 2023, Poland’s constitutional court — which opposition politicians asserted was under Law and Justice control — supported the pardons. 

But days later, the Supreme Court ruled that the pardons were unlawful, arguing that the issue was not within the constitutional tribunal’s remit. 

Following the country’s October 2023 election, Law and Justice lost power and was replaced on Dec. 13, 2023, by a broad new coalition led by Donald Tusk, whose previous term as prime minister was in 2007-2014.

A district court in Warsaw sentenced Kamiński and Wąsik on Dec. 20, 2023, to two years in prison. After the police received warrants ordering them to arrest the two men, they sought sanctuary at the presidential palace, but were ultimately detained there Jan. 9.

Announcing that he would launch new proceedings to pardon the men, President Duda asked the country’s new justice minister Adam Bodnar to release them while the second pardon is considered.

Bodnar said that he needed time to consider the request and suggested that Duda should simply issue an immediate pardon to secure the men’s release.

The new government says it is aiming to uphold the rule of law, while the opposition has accused it of taking “political prisoners.”

Tens of thousands of Law and Justice supporters attended a protest Jan. 11 against the new government’s actions, including its takeover of public media and the arrest of the two politicians. 

At the rally, Law and Justice chairman Jarosław Kaczyński claimed that Kamiński and Wąsik were in jail “for having fought against corruption at high levels of society, and this is not accepted by the current government.”

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A spokesman for the Polish bishops’ conference explained that Archbishop Gądecki decided to enter the political maelstrom after receiving a Jan. 17 letter from Barbara Kamińska and Romualda Wąsik, the imprisoned men’s wives, asking him to mediate with the justice minister.

For Gądecki, the step is something of a risk. The Church in Poland is frequently accused of being too close to the Law and Justice party. 

Gądecki has sought to counter the accusation, for example, by distancing himself from the party’s stance on immigration.

But the website Notes from Poland reported that Gądecki’s intervention offer prompted a backlash, with critics arguing that he should ask Duda to issue an immediate pardon, rather than approaching Bodnar. Others accused the archbishop of playing into Law and Justice’s “political prisoners” narrative.

In a post at twitter.com, Poland’s foreign minister Radosław Sikorski wrote: “I don’t remember the hierarchy supporting the victims of Kamiński and Wąsik.”

In a Jan. 17 column in the daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, the journalist Tomasz Krzyżak — known for his defense of St. John Paul II’s handling of abuse cases in Poland — argued that Gądecki had fallen into a “political trap.”

The archbishop’s gesture was also criticized in some quarters of the Polish Catholic Church. 

The theologian and ethicist Fr. Alfred Wierzbicki told the TVN television network: “In my opinion, this is one of the most scandalous statements by a Church leader in recent years.”

Gądecki is due to end his second and final term as bishops’ conference president this spring.

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