Government agencies, independent from the Catholic Church, in many countries have begun up to investigate claims of sexual abuse of children in the Church. Unfortunately, the influence the Church in Polish politics means that children in Poland cannot count on such protection from paedophiles in cassocks. Two facts from the last year may attest to the difficult situation facing child victims of sexual abuse by priests. Firstly, the new head of the Parliamentary Commission of Justice and Human Rights is a prosecutor who, in 2001, decided to dismiss the charges against a priest accused of molesting young girls. As prosecutor he decided that the defendant had, in fact, been using his skills in bioenergy therapy. Secondly, In 2002, during another pedophilia scandal, the newly appointed Archbishop of Kraków, and the head of Polish Church, failed to support the victims, despite the insight he had into the particulars of the case. ‘Have No Fear’ (Nie lękajcie się), founded in 2015, is the first Polish organization that brings together victims of paedophile priests. It is supported internationally by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska: What is your reason for being active in Poland?
Barbara Blaine: The survivors of sexual abuse within the Church have come to Warsaw in support of the ‘Have No Fear’ Foundation in Poland, which is celebrating its third anniversary. It is an inspiring organisation and we are trying to help it achieve its goals. Our help is necessary, I believe, because Church officials in Poland have left children at risk. They are more interested in protecting perpetrators, enablers and the reputation of the Church than children.
As a child, were you a victim of abuse by a priest?
Yes, I am one of the victims. The priest in my parish began to sexually violate me in the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I was twelve or thirteen. The first time he assaulted me I thought that my body had completely frozen. My mind kept saying: ‘No, stop, don’t touch me there’. I remember him saying, ‘Stop shaking, I won’t hurt you’. I could not understand how a priest could commit such a crime, so I assumed immediately that something must have been wrong with me, that I had made the good priest do this bad thing. I felt very dirty, ashamed and confused. He promised me that it would never happen again, but it did, many times.
There was no one that I could tell. Everyone admired this priest. I could not tell my parents, my teachers or my friends, so I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even realize it was affecting my life. I grew up, moved away and went on with my life. However, as an adult I began having nightmares and flashbacks. I was haunted by what had happened to me as a child. I went to the Church officials to get help. I had thought that they would care about my family and me. I had thought that they would want to get him out of the Church so that he could not do the same thing to another other child. I was told that I was the only victim and advised to keep quiet instead of reporting him to the police. I was told that reporting the abuse would be detrimental to my family and me, and also harmful to the reputation of the Church. They said that they knew I did not want to damage the community’s respect for the Church. So I kept silent for seven more years.
Why did you break your silence?
After a while I began to realize that I was still in need of help and that the Church would not provide it. On the contrary, in fact, they had treated me terribly, and so I spoke out. Almost immediately, it was revealed that during that time, the priest had also raped other girls. These other girls contacted me and I discovered that I was not alone. When the bishop had told me that I was the only victim, I had believed him. I discovered, upon meeting these other victims, that Church officials had established a policy for managing claims of abuse: isolate the victims from one another, deny the existence of other victims, maintain that this problem is marginal, and persuade the victim to keep quiet. This policy had allowed bishops to transfer perpetrators from one parish to another. If a priest is found guilty of molesting a child in the US he must be kicked out of the priesthood. In actual fact, however, these priests are only removed from their parishes in US and sent abroad, where they continue to abuse children. It’s like that everywhere. So what can we do to stop the sexual violence? We would like to see justice for other survivors and for ourselves. I was denied this justice, I never had my day in court, and the perpetrator was never punished.
Are there any positive examples of how other countries have dealt with the problem of paedophile priests?
From our perspective, no one has handled this injustice properly. We believe that the policies and practices which originate in the Vatican have spread across the globe. The example set by the Vatican is followed around the world.– Therefore, in not supporting the victims of abuse, and excommunicating the perpetrators, the Vatican has allowed this sexual violence to continue. In the US, when people started speaking out against sexual abuse within the Church, the media and officials in Rome dismissed the scandal as ‘an American problem’. Now, however, we know just how widespread, and systemic, this abuse is on every continent. Within our organization, SNAP, we have members from over seventy countries. Studies have been conducted by independent government agencies in several countries, in Australia, Ireland, Canada and some states in the US, showing that the number of perpetrators among the clergy in any given area may be as high as five to ten per cent at least!
Experts speaking to Vatican officials have estimated that there have been, at least, a hundred thousand victims in the US.
That would mean that a single perpetrator, unchecked by bishops who are aware of his crimes, could abuse several dozen children.
Yes! And this is what is actually happening. In 2014 there was a group of deaf victims, now adults, who were abused as children by Nicola Corradi, a priest in Verona, Italy. They gathered their courage and marched on the Vatican. The police blocked their path and did not allow them to reach the Vatican. The publicity generated by this scandal forced the authorities in Verona to remove that priest. In the New York Times, a few days ago I read that father Corradi, now 82 years old, had been arrested in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This means that the Church had moved him from Italy to Argentina. Pope Francis must have known about this case, and yet he allowed this priest to minister to the deaf children of Argentina who have been abused! The impact of sexual violence on children is horrific and the consequences are lasting. Just like Humpty Dumpty, or an egg, after this experience you just cannot put a life back together again.
Unfortunately, the Polish Church has employed the same tactic of transferring paedophile priests from one parish to another, enabling them to continue to their abuse. I know that you supported the Polish victims in an intervention linked to such a case.
Yes, there was a priest who was found guilty of abusing several girls. However, the judge suspended the sentence and the priest was not sent to jail. The bishop just transferred this priest to a new parish in a new town. We happened to be at the Have No Fear Foundation’s conference last year when we heard about it from several mothers of the victims who had travelled from Poznan to Zamosc. We decided to travel immediately to the town where this priest now lived and to hold a demonstration. It turned out the priest was even living at the school! We pointed out to the bishop that the children of the town were more important than the priest’s career, and insisted that the Church found someone other than a convicted child molester to say Mass for this parish.
What did the principal of the school have to say?
We asked her to notify parents of the risk posed by this priest… The principal replied that it would not be necessary as they had been informed by the coverage of our protest on the news. We asked how she could ensure the safety of the children at the school and she replied, ‘we have a security camera’.
How could a professional, responsible for the safety of children, endanger their wellbeing in this way?
Here in Poland, as in many other countries, the clergy has been placed on a pedestal. As children, we are taught to revere the priest because he is close to God. We see that our parents and teachers listen to, obey and respect the priest. There is no one in our world with greater authority than the priest. So it is difficult to comprehend, when he rapes us, molests us, and violates us, how such a thing could happen. As a child, we assume it is our fault, since the priest can do nothing wrong.
Who can prevent this system which perpetuates abuse and offers the perpetrators impunity?
Pope Francis has announced that such priests cannot remain in ministry; however Polish bishops have not excommunicated them.
This shows that they still do not feel obliged to change this practice. I believe that if the Pope wanted to put an end to sexual violence in the Church, he could and he would – and I believe he should. I could set out the clear steps that he could take to end this abuse, but I think that first we must recognize that no Church official will do what they should unless they are given no choice.
In the US, for example, bishops have determined a policy whereby, should a priest be found guilty of having abused a child, he can no longer work as priest, he can no longer wear his robes of power and he cannot hold a public ministry. However these bishops always find an excuse to explain why this policy should not apply to this or that perpetrator. Have you seen the movie Spotlight? Before this film, as victims, we were treated as enemies. Everyone claimed that ‘priests would never do such a thing’, that even if it should happen, it was a marginal problem. Suddenly, however, victims began to speak out all over the country, in Boston, LA, DC and other states. The Church was under extreme pressure from the public, from donors, mayors, politicians. So they adopted this policy. However, for the most part, it is a public relations exercise. A trick. The goal is not to protect children, but to preserve the reputation of the Church in the eyes of the public. This is why the pressure of the public is crucial.
One of the most worrying aspects, for me, in the case of Poland, is the silence of communities and officials regarding child abuse within the Church. In our present Parliament the human rights commission is led by a prosecutor who, just a few years ago, defended a paedophile priest, claiming that his abuse of children was bioenergotherapy! The silence of the local communities allows the perpetrators to continue to abuse children for many years.
People do not want to discuss sex, they do not want to consider the issue of sex between an adult and a child, and they cannot contemplate addressing the problem of such a crime committed by a member of the clergy. It is embarrassing, and even more so for victims. I feel guilt and shame and I do not want anyone to find out because I think they will judge me. But the bottom line is that there is no other way: victims and witnesses have to speak out. As victims have begun to speak out, recognition of this problem has spread, little by little, and in the US today no one can claim that a priest would never rape a child.
It is very important for the victims who speak out to be supported and honoured; their testimony is cleansing the Church of this evil. The Church cannot want sexual violence to continue. We must recognize that the main issue is not the punishment of perpetrators, or even the bishops that enable them; it is the protection of the children.
But punishing the perpetrators is also crucial, any perpetrator of sexual abuse outside of the clergy would immediately be sent to prison. Priests cannot operate above the law.
This is true of the US as well. But for some reason people react differently when a priest is implicated in such a crime. It’s not right, but it is the reality. There are policemen that would not dare to charge a priest with any crime believing that they would be damned for such an act.
Perhaps an effective way of ending this cycle would be to lobby the ministry of education to improve children’s sexual education, to make them aware that even a priest can be a perpetrator. You cannot influence Vatican policies but you can empower these children.
Yes, however this may also have a negative impact by placing the burden of resisting these sexual advances on the child. This burden must be carried by the bishops, the Vatican, and the cardinals. Another important aspect to consider in this debate is that the reception of a victim’s testimony of sexual violence is critical to their healing. Only, when their testimony has been received appropriately, ‘this should have never happened, I’m so sorry’, can their healing begin. When the response is negative, ‘Why would you say such a thing, that can’t be true’, it is as if the victim has been violated again. When the Church blames the victims and treats us as though we are enemies, it makes our experience so much worse…
Have you had the opportunity to speak directly to the Vatican about the sexual abuse of children within the Church?
Over the years, we have spoken to the heads of many religious communities; Franciscans, Augustinians, Benedictines… and also to the cardinals. But it has been in vain. Meeting with them does not bring about any change in the cycle of abuse. Only the pressure of exposing such abuse in the media, and the pressure from the public to put an end to this abuse can effect real change. The Church will only change under real external pressure Pope Francis has made grand statements condemning this abuse, but he has not taken any action that would protect children. If he were sincere in his desire to protect the children of the Church, he would punish the bishops responsible for enabling the crimes of perpetrators of sexual abuse among the clergy: ‘If you hire or transfer a perpetrator, you will be removed from you post’. The perpetrators themselves should be excommunicated. In 2014, even UN recommended this course of action to the Vatican! Whistle-blowers should be held up as examples to follow. Finally, the Church should publicize the names of all known perpetrators so that parents are able to consult this list and ensure that their children are not at risk. Under John Paul II and Benedict XXVI, all the cases of child abuse were sent to the Vatican – and they are still there. These files should be made public and should be dealt with by the police. Bishops should not be investigating crimes any more than the chief of police should be telling the cardinal what to say in his homily on Christmas day.