Pope St. John Paul II in 1979. / L’Osservatore Romano

Denver, Colo., Mar 10, 2023 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

Polish lawmakers denounced a documentary alleging that when he was a cardinal and archbishop in Poland, Pope St. John Paul II covered up alleged child sexual abuse committed by priests.

“There are those who are trying to stir up not a military conflict, but a culture war here in Poland,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a video posted to Twitter March 8. “I stand in defense of our beloved pope, like most of my fellow citizens, because I know that as a nation we owe a lot to John Paul.”

On Thursday, Poland’s Parliament passed a resolution in defense of the former pope that “strongly condemns the disgraceful media smear campaign, largely based on the documents of communist Poland’s machinery of violence, against the great pope, St. John Paul II, the greatest Pole in history.”

Polish lawmakers in the Sejm, the national Parliament lower house, voted 271 to 43 to pass the resolution. Two centrist opposition parties declined to vote on the resolution, while members of the leftist opposition party voted against it.

Referring to the report’s use of material taken from communist secret police files, the resolution said it was “an attempt to discredit John Paul II using material that even the communists did not dare use.”

The Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference had challenged the allegations presented in the documentary and noted the need for “further archival research.” In a March 7 statement, the bishops said that two claims of cover-up in the report had already been refuted. The third new claim, they said, was based on the unreliable files of the communist government’s secret police.

John Paul II is a national hero in Poland for his resistance to Soviet communism. He became a globally known figure for his charismatic, thoughtful presentation of Catholic Christianity and his unprecedented global travels. Pope Francis canonized him as a saint in 2014.

The controversy follows the Monday broadcast of journalist Marcin Gutowski’s documentary on the news channel TVN24. The documentary repeated allegations that the future pope, then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, relocated two priests, Father Eugeniusz Surgent and Father Jozef Loranc, despite knowing they were accused of sexually abusing minors. Gutowski also aired a new claim about a third priest.

The broadcaster TVN, owned by U.S.-based conglomerate Warner Bros Discovery Inc., the largest private media network in Poland, has been a leading critic of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party since it took power in 2015.

Lawmakers had proposed a law to force TVN’s then owner, Discovery Inc., to sell most of its ownership stake by barring any non-European entities from owning more than a 49% stake in television or radio broadcasters. The proposal strained tensions with the United States and prompted thousands of Poles to protest in the streets. President Andrej Duda vetoed the bill in late 2021, Bloomberg news reported.

Poland’s foreign ministry invited the U.S. ambassador to a meeting “to inform him about the situation and its consequences in the form of reducing Poland’s capacity to deter a potential enemy and diminishing its resilience to threats.”

“The potential effects of these actions are identical to the goals of hybrid war aimed at leading to divisions and tensions in Polish society,” Poland’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization website says hybrid methods of warfare include “propaganda, deception, sabotage, and other nonmilitary tactics.”

It is not clear from the ministry’s statement whether the requested meeting with the U.S. ambassador concerned U.S. ownership of TVN.

The bishops’ March 7 statement was jointly authored by Father Adam Zak, the Polish bishops’ coordinator for the protection of minors, and Father Piotr Studnicki, director of the bishops’ Office of the Delegate for the Protection of Children and Youth.

The statement said that allegations the late pontiff covered up abuse in the case of two priests had already been reported by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek in December 2022. Overbeek’s book “Maxima Culpa” was published in Polish this week, Reuters reported.

The bishops said Overbeek’s work had been refuted by two other journalists, Tomasz Krzyżak and Piotr Litka. According to Krzyżak and Litka, Wotjyla removed Loranc from his parish, suspended him from priestly service, and then forced him to live in a monastery where the civil authorities ultimately arrested him. After Loranc was released from prison, he was allowed to celebrate Mass but not catechize children and youth or hear confessions.

Surgent, who would be imprisoned for abuse, was a priest of the Lubaczów Diocese. Wojtyla made “several decisions” regarding this priest but he left “the final word on possible sanctioning” to the Bishop of Lubaczów.

The third claim from Gutowski’s broadcast has not been previously reported. It concerns an alleged cover-up of sexual abuse of young boys allegedly committed by Father Boleslaw Saduś. Wojtyla allegedly knew of the accusations against the priest but recommended him to an Austrian diocese without noting this.

The documentary presented evidence “not on the basis of a prosecutorial or judicial investigation but on the files of the security services of the People’s Republic of Poland,” the bishops’ statement said, adding that it is “impossible to determine” the nature of the acts attributed to the priest on these sources.

The Security Service was the secret police and counter-espionage agency for the atheistic communist government that ruled Poland and sought to subvert and control the Catholic Church in the country.

Gutowski interviewed several victims and a man who said in the 1970s he informed Wojtyla about Surgent’s abuse, the Associated Press reported.

In a March 9 statement, TVN24 said the documentary is “the result of many months of work, based on multiple-source documents, eyewitness accounts and — most importantly — (it) gives voice to the victims themselves.” The report underwent “several stages of verification” and was made following “the highest journalistic standards.” The role of independent media is “to show the facts, even if they are difficult and painful to accept.”

The Polish bishops’ conference noted that today there is much greater awareness about the damage of sexual abuse and the development of church procedures to respond.

“To all those who were harmed in this way by the clergy years ago and still bear the consequences of the evil experienced, we as the Church provide acceptance, listening, and support,” the statement said.

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