Warsaw September 19-22, 2021



A Conference of the Church in Central and Eastern Europe

Delegate of the PBC, Archbishop Wojciech Polak: the crisis caused by exploitation affects the essence of the Church community

Delegate of the PBC, Archbishop Wojciech Polak: the crisis caused by exploitation affects the essence of the Church community

I think that all of us gathered here today strongly believe that what we have experienced together in recent days is important and good, and that we all needed it.

Personally, I am grateful for our meeting, during which we have had the opportunity to get to know each other personally, to listen to each other, to pray together for the wounded in the Church, to share sincerely our experiences, difficulties, disappointments and hopes, and to reflect and talk together about our common mission, which is the protection of God’s children. In a special way I thank the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley for taking this initiative and organizing this event in collaboration with the Polish Catholic Bishops Conference. Many thanks to all who accepted our invitation and came to Poland, representing the local Roman and Greek Catholic communities from Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Estonia, Kosovo, Lithuania, Latvia, North Macedonia, Moldova, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Hungary.

We see more and more clearly that the crisis caused by the sexual abuse of minors and the neglect of Church superiors touches the essence of the Church community. These terrible crimes and neglect have robbed many people of their faith and blurred the image of God. God has been profaned in a wronged person. With humility we must confess that in the weakest and most vulnerable, whom we were supposed to protect, we have betrayed Christ. The crimes and neglect of some have cast a shadow of distrust over the entire community and its institutions. In this way, we have become unreliable.

We have taken and are taking a number of actions in response to this crisis. But we cannot help asking what was and is the motive behind our actions. Are we not sometimes dominated by fear of the media and public opinion? The desire to improve our image? Fear of losing our position further? Fear of the criminal consequences prescribed by Church and State law? Fear of the righteous anger of the people? Even if our fears mobilize us to action, they cannot remain a sufficient motive. Such actions, though seemingly right, will in their essence be neurotic, ad hoc, and short-sighted.

This is why we need to rediscover that our mission comes from the very heart of the Gospel, from the love of Jesus for the child, from His identification with the smallest ones. Our mission is the imitation of Christ who came to heal those who were unwell. It is the mission of the “merciful Samaritan” who does not pass by with indifference the battered and abandoned, but stops to immediately dress his wounds and to help and accompany him in the long process of healing. It is the mission of the Good Shepherd who does not give in to the temptations of success, but persistently seeks out every person whose life is threatened or wounded.

We know well that our mission is a great challenge. The drama of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in our societies is the scourge of our times, and the harm to those thus injured is enormous. In addition, we clearly feel there is still strong resistance in our communities and insufficient understanding of our work. All this can give rise to a sense of our helplessness. The mission in which we participate is beyond the capacity of each and every one of us. But this is precisely why we need to support each other, to be together, to be solidary in this. We need cooperation. It has many dimensions. I will dwell on a few of them, which rang out very clearly during our meeting.

First, in order to protect the weakest and vulnerable in our communities, and to help those who have been harmed, we need the cooperation of all who make up the community of the Church: laity and ecclesiastical leaders, clergy and consecrated persons, women, men, the wounded, and those who have the courage to accompany them. I am very glad to see everyone at this conference, but I am especially grateful for the presence of the wounded, and I also appreciate the presence and contribution of the laity, because I am convinced that only together will we fruitfully receive the grace that the Lord grants us by purifying us of all that has contributed to this crisis, especially the pride of clericalism. Without real cooperation based on the grace of the Lord, we will not break the culture of corporatism and the conspiracy of silence.

Secondly, in order to effectively protect minors and vulnerable adults and to support those who have been victimized, we need to combine our different competencies because we see how much the crime of sexual abuse devastates human life in all its dimensions. This is why we need to develop legal reflection, so that investigations and trials are more effective than ever in helping people to regain a sense of justice. We need the involvement of psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, and sexologists, without whom we cannot professionally help the victims, diagnose, and rehabilitate the perpetrators and honestly look for the causes. There is a need for sociological research to identify risk factors in society and in the Church, and to consistently build a system of prevention. There is a need for theological reflection in order to influence pastoral activity and the spiritual accompaniment of victims, their families and the communities affected. There is a need for theological reflection on the causes of the crisis we are experiencing, related – as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI suggests – to the fact that the Church acts as a “political apparatus” affected by a “lack of God.”  There is a need for educators and professionals to support the creation and implementation of prevention policies and programs to make our communities safe environments for children, youth and the vulnerable. There is also a need to professionalize our intra-institutional and external communications so that the church becomes increasingly transparent in its actions.

Third, we need cooperation among our local churches in this part of Europe. As we shared our experience during these days, we saw that although we face the same challenge, we are at different stages of the journey. In some countries – such as Poland – we are at the stage of a painful wave of disclosures, in others it seems that clergy sexual offences are only isolated cases. In some of us, support structures and prevention systems are more developed than in others. These differences should not distance us from one another, but be a call to solidarity through which we can support one another. Those who are more advanced on this path can share solutions with those who have less experience and resources. Those communities that feel alone can count on the support of those more experienced. As citizens of Central and Eastern Europe, we share a common experience of dictatorship, which was overcome precisely through solidarity. I hope that this conference will strengthen our solidarity and initiate the process of our common reflection, exchange of experiences and solutions.

Speaking of cooperation, I also think of the need to cooperate with state law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, as well as with non-governmental organizations that deal with the protection of minors. The tragedy of sexual abuse that we face in the Church is part of a social problem, and therefore requires cooperation with all those who have the best interests of the child at heart. In the Church, helping those who have been wronged and protecting the weakest, we must be concerned for all those who have been hurt in this way, regardless of who the perpetrator is.

Finally – last but not least – the Holy See plays a key role in cooperation. It is the link with the Holy See that gives all of us the certainty of the right direction of actions taken, because it is the last popes, starting with St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Holy Father Francis, who with their teaching and actions set the direction of our work.  The tragedy we face is universal. It is not a local challenge! Therefore, this connection with the Holy See is a guarantee that we will retain our ability to communicate the Gospel to the world.