I’m one of the Pope’s Children – a generation of Irish children born in the late 1970s and early 1980s – that have come to symbolise Ireland’s deep relationship with the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul’s II visit to Ireland in 1979 saw over 50% of the Irish population attend his events and reaffirm Ireland’s devotion to the Catholic cause. Ireland was poor then, with high unemployment, rampant emigration, a closed and rather isolated society unworried by the issues of immigration or race (we were all white with an excess of people, not jobs). For us, a ‘Protestant’ was exotic and reaching America (or at least England) was, for many, the ultimate objective. Ireland was, as The Economist noted in 1988, “the poorest of the rich.”
For us, the unfolding revelations about the abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy in Poland is like watching our own sad, terrible history repeating itself. The recent release of the independent movie ‘Tell No One’, which uncovered cases of sexual abuse by priests, will in time fundamentally change Polish society for the better. But for this to occur, it is Poland’s younger and middle-aged generations – their own Pope’s Children – who must first confront the silence and denial that have long been hallmarks of the Catholic church on these issues.
This confrontation will, at a national level, be political. The recent comments of Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party,that "there is no Poland without the Church" mirrors how the Catholic Church in Ireland sought to use its identity, symbols and power to maintain a veil of silence over issues of child abuse. By viewing the Catholic Church and the nation as an indistinguishable entity, conservative politicians mould a state-church axis that successfully delivers a long-term power base. In Ireland, this delivered generation after generation of conservative Catholicism. A Catholicism founded on fear (of the non-Catholic world outside) and control (of politics, religion and healthcare).
Based on the Irish experience, many Poles will find the horrific nature of the revelations too much to acknowledge, let alone redress. This will be the reality in the coming years, especially for older generations embedded in the rituals of daily practice. Denial, or at least a kind of mealy-mouthed recognition, is already evident in Poland with The Archbishop of Gdansk, Sławoj Leszek Głódź, saying: “he has better things to do than watch the film.” Perhaps, in his pious mind, saying mass is more important than asking for forgiveness.
But change will come, even if glacially at first. It is impossible, as much as some people might wish it, to put the genie of ignorance back in the bottle. Knowledge is power because with knowledge people can form their own opinions. This will be strongly resisted by both the Church and conservative politicians in Poland because to acknowledge the awfulness of the reality is to accept their own complicity. And to realise the fundamental lie of a benevolent, courageous and merciful Catholic Church in Poland.
Unfortunately, past experience shows that Poland need not expect the Catholic Church to use these crimes as the start of a contrite process of reconciliation. Even after two decades of horrific revelations, the Catholic Church in Ireland has refused to fully compensate its victims, notwithstanding agreements with the national government and its obvious material wealth.
To gain full justice for the victims of these Polish crimes requires political leadership. The courage to challenge the idea that the Catholic Church is indistinguishable from the Polish nation. Poland’s history, culture and achievements are Poland’s legacy, not just the preserve of a mythical Catholic Church. In reality, the victims who have long been ignored and pushed onto the margins of society need powerful political advocates to hold the perpetrators to account - and ensure that the law applies to all, not just the weak and vulnerable.
In Ireland, the speech of then Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny – himself a conservative, rural Catholic - in 2011 paved the way for a more equal, less deferential relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish state. His searing words in acknowledging that “the rape and torture of children was downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold…the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation” was both heart-breaking and liberating.
The release of ‘Tell No One’ may not impact directly the results of the coming elections in Poland. But, if the needs of its victims are kept at the forefront of the political agenda, then it will have more than served its purpose. Although opponents of dealing fully (and truthfully) with these crimes will drum up the usual “anti-Catholic” and “death of the traditional family” scenarios, these threats will ebb as the full scale of the scandal becomes clear. Only then will the real Poland be free to emerge, and her Pope’s Children liberated from the burden of history.
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