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New book on Pope John Paul II stirs up heated debate in Polish politics

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk

Poland’s ruling nationalists want parliament to pass a resolution on Thursday defending the name of John Paul II after a new book said the late pope knowingly covered up clerical paedophilia scandals when he was archbishop of Krakow.

The allegations about John Paul, who was the first Polish pope, have provoked fierce debate in one of Europe’s most devoutly Roman Catholic nations.

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While many people have said the allegations should lead to a reassessment of John Paul’s legacy, many religious conservatives condemn what they see as a left-wing plot to discredit a figure who is at the core of the nation’s identity.

Politicians from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party joined the uproar, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

“Today I am defending our beloved pope, because like the vast majority of my compatriots, I know that as a nation we owe John Paul II a great, great deal. Maybe we owe him everything,” Morawiecki said in an emotional recording published on Twitter on Wednesday.

In Poland, where 85% of the population declare Catholic faith, John Paul, who was pronounced a saint by Pope Francis in2014, is also viewed as a leader who contributed to the fall of communism in the country in 1989.

Ths PiS wants the parliament to adopt a resolution defending the good name of the pope, who was pontiff from 1978 until his death in 2005. A vote may take place on Thursday, with the PiS holding a majority to pass it.

“We will not allow the image of a man whom the whole free world recognises as a pillar of victory over the Evil Empire to be destroyed,” the draft resolution says, using a term coined by former US President Ronald Reagan to describe the Soviet Union.

The head of the Polish Bishop’s Conference, Archbishop of Poznan Stanislaw Gadecki, also called on “all people of goodwill not to destroy the common good, and the legacy of John Paul II undoubtedly belongs to this”.

“Poles should remember about the blessing that Providence gave us through this Pope,” Gadecki wrote in a statement published on Thursday.

The Vatican did not immediately reply for a request for comment about the allegations in the book, called “Maxima Culpa: John Paul II knew” and published this week in Polish.

Ekke Overbeek, the author of the book ‘Maxima Culpa: John Paul II knew’, talks during an interview, in Warsaw, Poland, March 8, 2023. Picture: Kacper Pempel/ REUTERS

In the book, author Ekke Overbeek goes back to the time when, as Karol Wojtyla, the future pope served as archbishop of Krakow between 1964-1978. It draws on the archives of Poland’s communist secret police and conversations with sex abuse victims and witnesses.

The book says John Paul not only knew about child abuse in his archdiocese but also helped to cover it up by transferring priests involved from one parish to another, including at least two who were eventually convicted of abuse of minors and served jail time.

“What I found are very concrete cases of sex abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests in the archdiocese of Krakow during a time when … the future John Paul II was in charge of the archdiocese,” Overbeek told Reuters.

“He was aware of the problem from the very beginning, and that sheds a completely different light on his pontificate.”

Those defending the pope question the reliability of information from communist secret police documents.

In the 1980s, the Church was a voice of freedom in Poland: Pope John Paul earned iconic status for inspiring people to stand up against communist rule. Parish priests sheltered anti-government activists and helped distribute food and underground newspapers.

However, according to a Pew Research Centre study, Poland is now the fastest secularising country in the world and a growing number of people are turning away from the Church, partly due to mounting proof of child abuse by priests.

Clerical sex abuse scandals, and accusations of cover-ups, have rocked the Church in recent years not just in Poland but in many countries, with John Paul’s successors Pope Benedict and Pope Francis both accused by critics of being too slow to address the issue.

In Poland, the allegations against John Paul have led politicians from the opposition Left party to call for removing his name from public spaces, including many schools and kindergartens named after him.

“It is time to remove the taboo from this topic. We need to remove John Paul II from public space,” said leftist Warsaw councillor Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska.



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