By Alan Charlish and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk
WARSAW (Reuters) – The leader of Poland’s conservative ruling party promised harsher sentences for child abuse on Sunday, as the release of a documentary about paedophile priests created a fresh battleground in an election campaign marked by debate on religion and sexuality.
The film “Just don’t tell anyone”, which features victims confronting their abusers, has reignited criticism of the Catholic Church’s handling of such cases and had over 3 million views within 22 hours of being posted on YouTube.
“We prepared changes to the penal code meaning this crime (child abuse) will be punished very severely … there will be no suspended sentences, there will be severe penalties, maybe even up to 30 years in prison,” said the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party’s head Jaroslaw Kaczynski at a rally.
Currently, sexual abuse of a child under 15 is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.
Kaczynski’s words came amid tensions between liberals who feel the church wields too much power in Poland and conservatives who see the Catholic faith as a key element of national identity whose influence must be protected.
On Monday, a woman was detained by police for posting images near a church of the Virgin Mary with her halo painted to resemble the rainbow flag of the LGBT community.
PiS, which leads most opinion polls, has made protecting traditional values a key plank of its bid to win European elections on May 26 and parliamentary elections in the autumn.
“Does this (stance against child abuse) mean that the crimes … of a small number of priests give the right to attack the church, to offend Catholics? No, that is no justification,” added Kaczynski in the northern city of Szczecin.
The film, by brothers Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, shows elderly priests, including Franciszek Cybula who was the chaplain of former president Lech Walesa, being confronted by people they abused as children. It presents allegations that known paedophiles were shifted between parishes.
“I am deeply disturbed by what I saw in Tomasz Sekielski’s film. The enormous suffering of those who have been hurt gives rise to pain and shame,” Poland’s most senior archbishop Wojciech Polak said in a recorded statement. “I am sorry for every wound inflicted by people of the church.”
Anna Frankowska of the charity “Have no fear”, which supports abuse victims, said the Catholic Church in Poland had not taken concrete steps to bring paedophile priests to justice.
“This is just another apology, it almost appears as if the statement was prepared before the church officials saw the movie,” she told Reuters.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)