A documentary film in which Polish Catholic priests are forced to confront people they abused as children has shocked Poland, leading politicians to declare a crackdown on sexual abuse of children.
The pledges come amidst criticism, however, that they are just election campaigning and a smokescreen to wait out the crisis in decades’ long alliance between politicians across the board in Poland and the Catholic church.
The film, titled “Just Don’t Tell Anyone”, was nearing six million views late on May 12, some 36 hours since its premiere on YouTube. The authors, the renowned television journalist Tomasz Sekielski and his brother Marek Sekielski, who acted as producer, made the film independently with money they raised via an online crowdfunding campaign.
The film also shows that abuser priests were relocated to new parishes after victims spoke up, a cover-up method that would not be possible without the involvement of the priests’ superiors – in other words, bishops and other high-ranked clergy.
The film has arrived two weeks before the election to the European Parliament on May 26, forcing reactions from most actors on the political scene.
Potentially, the documentary could dent the election result of the main mainstream parties – the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and Civic Platform (PO) – for their past indolence in tackling sexual abuse of children by the Catholic clergy and covering up those crimes by high-ranked members of the Polish Episcopate.
For now, leading politicians have been trying to outdo one another in presenting decisive reactions to the film.
PiS’ chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced the ruling party would push for making sexual abuse of children penalised with up to 30 years in prison, much harsher than the current maximum sentence of 12 years.
Critics were quick to point out Kaczynski talked in broad terms about penalisation of abuse but did not comment on the film itself.
PiS is strongly pro-Catholic – as large chunks of its core electorate are – and has long been seen treading carefully between appealing to more liberal parts of society while not alienating the conservatives.
Just weeks earlier, PiS attacked Poland’s LGBT people for being a threat to traditional values of Polish society and branded sexual education “sexualisation of children” that should be opposed.
“We have to take care of the safety of our children and we will do that. We will end tolerance [to sexual abuse of children] and we will end the conspiracy of silence,” the leader of PO Grzegorz Schetyna said at a campaign event in Szczecin.
“How many paedophile priests were sentenced in 2007-2015?” Robert Biedron, the leader of centre-left Wiosna (Spring) party responded to Schetyna, referring to eight years when PO was in power.
Wiosna, alongside social democrats from Lewica Razem (The Left Together), but also the far-right Konfederacja might gain in popularity in the aftermath of the film, attacking PiS and PO for their lack of credibility in handling cases of abuse perpetrated by the Catholic clergy.
For its part, officials of the Catholic church appeared at a loss on how to react to the skyrocketing popularity of the documentary. The Primate of Poland, bishop Wojciech Polak, thanked the Sekielski brothers for the film and apologised for “every wound inflicted by people of the church.”
Yet, Polak and other seniors of the Catholic church in Poland refused to comment for the film or did not respond to requests to do so, the authors said in the film.
“I was busy. I don’t watch everything that comes up,” archbishop Slawoj Leszek Glodz said when asked by reporters if he had seen the film. The film claims Glodz covered up abuse perpetrated by the late Franciszek Cybula, the former chaplain to then-president Lech Walesa.