Polish bishops defend St. John Paul II, form independent commission to investigate ‘full picture’ of archives

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St. John Paul II greets the crowd in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. The country's bishops March 15, 2023, announced they will create a commission of experts to investigate cases of abuse of minors by clergy from the past -- an investigation that would cover the era that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, governed the Archdiocese of Krakow. The bishops also defended the late pope after a Polish TV station report said there was a "cover up" of abuse when Cardinal Wojtyla was Krakow's archbishop. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Chris Niedenthal)

KRAKOW, Poland (OSV News) — The bishops of Poland March 14 announced they will create a commission of experts to investigate cases of abuse of minors by clergy from the past in the country — an investigation that would cover the era that St. John Paul II governed the Archdiocese of Krakow as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

The Polish hierarchy also defended John Paul II after a television station’s report accused the Polish pope of “cover up” of abuse when he was archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978, the year he was elected pope.

The headline “John Paul II knew about the abuse when he was archbishop of Krakow” made waves in the media March 6, when the documentary “Franciszkanska 3” by Marcin Gutowski premiered on TVN24, a private commercial TV network in Poland. On March 8, the book “Maxima Culpa” by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek debuted, showing the same cases depicted in the documentary.

“He is a saint and his sainthood is not questioned,” Bishop Slawomir Oder, who was installed in the Diocese of Gliwice March 11 and who was a postulator in the beatification process of John Paul II, said in a press conference March 14 in Warsaw.

The commission, however, which the bishops voted unanimously to form, gives context to cases depicted in media reports.

Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, primate of Poland and delegate of child protection for the Polish bishops’ conference, said at a news conference that the task of the commission would be the “thorough examination of documents contained in both state and Church archives so that its content is shown in its entirety, taking into account the laws and state of knowledge as well as the socio-cultural context” of the times.

“Much is yet to be determined” regarding how the commission would work and who would be its members, Father Piotr Studnicki, head of the Office of Child Protection of the Polish bishops’ conference, told OSV News.

“But for sure if this commission is aimed to help the victims of clergy sexual abuse, it needs to be fully independent,” he said, adding that “rush is the last thing we want.” Rather, it is important to form the commission on solid foundations so that it can work in honesty seeking the truth.”

Concrete decisions on how it would look like are yet to be decided on the next plenaries of the bishops conference, however the bishops are determined to investigate the cases from 1945 to 1990, and are considering also examining later cases.

The commission would be comprised of historians, lawyers, doctors and psychologists, and it “will not be focused only on priests that committed the crime of sexual abuse in the archdioceses of Krakow when cardinal Wojtyla was archbishop (but) it will investigate what we know about all abusive clergy in Poland after World War II.”

After media reports accusing Cardinal Wojtyla of cover up were published, historians worked to put media revelations into historical context. Pawel Skibinski, professor of history at the University of Warsaw, told RMF Polish radio that the work of journalists accusing Wojtyla is not a proper historical query.

“I must honestly admit that I am shocked by the level of construction of these materials,” he said, adding that if students brought him such incomplete queries, he would “send them away,” adding that “we are treated very badly as recipients” of media reports.

Journalists Gutowski and Overbeek used mostly archives produced by the communist Security Service which doesn’t give a full picture of the case, the historian pointed out.

Archbishop Grzegorz Rys of Lodz said at the March 14 press conference wrapping a two-day plenary meeting of all the Polish bishops that “every historical source requires a critique, based on other sources.”

In the past, Archbishop Rys, a historian himself, was a director of the church archives of Wawel Cathedral where Karol Wojtyla was ordained bishop.

He was responsible for studying the Krakow archives during the beatification process of John Paul II. He said that “every page” of the formal and private letters of cardinal Wojtyla was examined and was “in our hands.”

He underlined that “today there is a question: Who are we going to listen to, remembering the times” of communist Poland, which was, he stressed, “a totalitarian country.”

“The war against the Church and the nation, led by the then authorities, was also a war for future memory,” Archbishop Rys stressed.

Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, president of the Polish bishops conference, said on Polish television March 12 that “we owe the truth to the next generation.”

“I have no doubts that he (John Paul II) was a shepherd with a sensitive conscience, attentive to every human being,” Archbishop Gadecki said. “Today, John Paul II would like from us the truth that is discovered in in-depth research, not in unreliable media reports. No one embraced the dignity of another human being like him,” Archbishop Gadecki said.

In the March 14 press release issued following the bishops’ two-day plenary meeting in Warsaw on March 14, the bishops appealed to “respect the memory of one of the greatest Poles.”

“The canonization process leaves no doubt as to John Paul II’s sainthood,” the release said.

Paulina Guzik

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.