The systemic response to the problem of abuse of children and youth by some clerics was the main theme of the Permanent Council of the Polish Bishops’ Conference convened by the President of the Polish Episcopate, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, on May 22, 2019.
The following letter was prepared by the bishops and is to be read in parishes in Poland on Sunday, May 26, 2019.
Dear Sisters and dear Brothers!
Recently, the Church community in Poland has been shaken by further painful information about the sexual abuse of children and youth by some clerics. These crimes are a source of deep suffering for the victims. There are no words to express our shame because of sexual scandals involving clerics. They are the cause of great scandal and they demand total condemnation, as well as drawing severe consequences against criminals and those who hide such acts.
The suffering of the victims affects not only themselves but also entire families and ecclesial communities. These crimes “have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing” (Benedict XVI, Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 19/03/2010).
The shouted words of the victim’s witness that Christ did not hurt the children are deep inside us. “[What a priest did] really left a big mark on my adult life. I have had nightmares until now. It is still in me” – said in the film the 39-year-old Anna, years ago a 9-year old schoolgirl, when facing the oppressor. And the second testimony, given in an article written by an adult man today: “I don’t blame the Church. I know that I was harmed not by the [whole] Church, but by a particular person. I do not know if any of the superiors knew anything about it. But I’m worried that people like me remain outside the Church sphere of attention”. Both witnesses are shocking – this should never have happened.
- A testimony of suffering
Many of us have seen the film “Just Don’t Tell Anyone”. This documentary is based, first of all, on the shocking accounts of today’s adults who were abused in childhood by clerics. It also contains examples of the lack of sensitivity, the sin of negligence and disbelief faced by victims, which in turn protected the perpetrators. The film, taking into account the perspective of the victims, made us all aware of the magnitude of their suffering. Anyone who is sensitive, learning the fate of the victims, experiences pain, emotion and sadness for their suffering. We thank to everyone who had the courage to tell about their suffering. We are aware of the fact that no word is able to reward them for the harms they have suffered.
We admit that as shepherds of the Church we have not done everything to prevent these harms. For many believers, especially for young people sincerely seeking God, sexual scandals involving clergy become a hard test of faith and a reason for great scandal. Disappointment and indignation are all the bigger and more painful that children, instead of caring love and accompaniment in seeking the nearness of Jesus, experienced violence and brutal deprivation of the dignity of the child. From the beginning of its existence, the ecclesial community recognized such behavior as an extremely serious sin; according to Christ’s words: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe [in me] to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42). “Woe to the world because of things that cause sin!…. woe to the one through whom they come! (Mt 18:8).
Everyone, both clergy, and lay people, as a community, must create the right space to restore as much as possible a normal life to the victims, as well as to rebuild confidence in priests and bishops.
Confessions of the victims urge us, bishops, but also all people of good will, to be more sensitive to dangers; to greater sensitivity to help the victims. Both the dangers and the need for support concern every community, not only the Church but also families, schools, sports clubs, and many other groups. Life situations of the victims encourage faster and more effective help for them. They need great sensitivity and support to find the balance of life.
We ask the victims harmed by the clergy to report the harm they have suffered to Church superiors and to the appropriate state authorities. In every diocese and in many religious provinces, a delegate has been appointed to receive reports of sexual abuse of minors by clerics. He is also intended to help in obtaining psychological, legal and pastoral support. We want to support the victims from the beginning of this path in taking the steps necessary to overcome the consequences of the harm suffered.
We welcome with gratitude the new Motu Proprio of Pope Francis, in which the Holy Father orders the reporting of such crimes and provides for serious punishments for superiors who neglected their duties to protect the flock of Christ. We also remember that according to the new norms of Church law contained in this document, nobody can be obliged to remain silent when reporting a crime. We will do everything in our power so that these reports are proceeded in Church institutions with compassion and with the greatest sensitivity and in the sense of security for each person and their drama. We will also continue reporting crimes to state law enforcement authorities.
Many clerics and lay people work with people who had the courage to speak about their traumatic experiences. We do not divulge it because we respect their right to privacy. Perhaps they will decide themselves to speak out loud. The reaction of the closest community is unfortunately rarely based on kindness and sensitivity. It is often cruel, mindless and merciless, sometimes full of reproaches, so that all of us need a change of mentality so that those who were hurt in childhood or youth in the delicate sphere of sexuality are protected and supported.
We pay more and more attention to education in seminars and shaping the personality of future priests. We do not want to allow immature people, unable to be faithful to their vows and promises, to enter in the ranks of the clergy. In addition, the coordinator for the protection of children and youth appointed by the Polish Bishops’ Conference has organized for six years, together with a team of collaborators of the Child Protection Center, numerous training for the diocesan and religious clergy. We prepare a system of prevention in dioceses and religious congregations; he is intended to help protect children and adolescents from potential sexual abuse. We want their safety to become a priority in all environments.
In this context, we especially appreciate the work of the vast majority of priests who are faithful to the Gospel and serve zealously and generously to God and to people. Let us not let the good, that is done in the Church through their ministry, be obscured by the sins of particular persons. On the principle of collective responsibility, let us not also convey the guilt of particular people in cassocks to all priests. These people committed these acts and they should be punished for their actions. Let us support in these difficult times the priests who work with sacrifice so that they don’t lose their enthusiasm and receive encouragement from the lay faithful.
Together with all people of good will, we unite our efforts in identifying and eliminating factors conducive to crime. We ask for support for educators and child and youth carers in kindergartens and schools as well as in care and educational institutions. We ask for help in gaining appropriate knowledge and skills so that all institutions run by the Church become safe homes, that set the best standards for protecting children. We address the same appeal to those responsible for Catholic movements and youth organizations. Let us all be more sensitive to children and young people as well as to the victims.
We conclude our Word to all people of good will with a prayer to the Holy Spirit:
Here we are, Lord, Holy Spirit.
We are – although burdened with sin,
but gathered in your name.
Come to us and be with us,
May you wash our hearts
and teach us what to do,
where to go,
tell us what to undertake,
so that we, supported by your power,
were able to please you in everything. (St. Augustine)
Invoking the power of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Mary, the Mother of the Church, entrusting her the victims, families, children and youth and ecclesial communities, we pray for the spirit of humility and courage, not to be overcome by evil and to take care of everyone.
Bishops gathered at the session of the Permanent Council of the Polish Bishops’ Conference
Warsaw, 22 May 2019