Last Monday, the Catholic Church of Poland published new figures on the number of complaints he has received alleging sexual abuse from his clergy.
A total of 368 complaints were filed with the Church between 2018 and 2020 regarding allegations of abuse by more than 290 priests and other religious figures. The cases date back to 1958 and 173 of them concern children under the age of 15, which is the age of consent in Poland.
Following the publication of these figures, the head of the Polish Catholic Church, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, apologized to the survivors and asked for forgiveness. While some survivors will appreciate this, this does not excuse the fact that the Church in Poland came to the question decades too late.
This is only the second time that the Polish Catholic Church has published such figures. He did this for the first time in 2019 when he revealed that 382 members of the clergy had been accused of sexually abusing 625 children between 1990 and 2018. The Church says that 42 priests are named in the two lists.
While this move is a positive sign that the Church in Poland is finally taking ownership of the problem, there are several issues with these numbers, in addition to the fact that it took decades for the church to release them first. location.
On the one hand, the fact that the Church in Poland has made these figures public is useful as it provides data on the matter, although it is widely believed that the cases of abuse that come to light are only the tip. of the iceberg.
On average, it takes 24 years for a victim to report the abuse she suffered as a child, with reasons such as feeling ashamed of the victim, not acknowledging what happened to her as abuse or fear not to be believed.
The only public tally of cases of clergy abuse in Poland is a menu created by activists, which currently registers more than 580 cases covered by the media or which have resulted in a court ruling. But even those that do make it to court are a minority of cases, often because survivors do not want to relive the trauma in a formal court setting where they might have to face their abuser again.
But, beyond the church figures themselves, the latest data is limited. The church did not publicly disclose the names of the 292 clergymen who are accused of sexual abuse, even in cases it deemed “credible.”
This appears to be a policy supported by the Pope himself in order to protect the “good reputation” of priests. However, many dioceses in other countries have voluntarily published this information.
In most Polish cases, the church said it had imposed “interim measures” while the complaints were being investigated, including the temporary removal of the accused from service and the prevention of any. contact with children. But we know from other countries that such priests are often left unattended.
The church also failed to explain how it had treated the 42 clergy who were on both the 2019 and this week’s lists, in what appear to be repeat offenders.
The withholding of the identity of the alleged perpetrators and details of the church’s action against them – which appears to be global church policy – shows that the Polish church still protects the alleged perpetrators by concealing their identity.
In Poland, this lack of transparency also extends to how the church investigates complaints of abuse. Thirty-nine of the 368 complaints were considered “unreliable” and therefore rejected. But how were these decisions made?
Of the 173 cases involving those under 15, the church said 148 of them had been reported to police. Another 25 have not been reported either because the defendants have since died or the allegations were found to be unfounded or are still under investigation. But at what stage does the church forward a complaint to state law enforcement authorities? Shouldn’t he do so as soon as he becomes aware of a suspected abuse?
Moreover, what happened in the cases of mistreatment of 15-17 year olds? For unclear reasons, while the church’s 2019 report gave some statistics on this age group, the latest data only divides survivors into two age groups: those under 15 and over. 15 years old.
Of the 174 cases in the latter group, 80 percent went unreported to police. One factor could have been that the adult survivors did not (yet) want to file a complaint with the police, as is often the case. But for 15-17 year olds, the imperative should be to warn the authorities.
And why doesn’t the church encourage survivors of abuse to report their cases to civil authorities upfront? Instead, church-run commissions are increasingly being set up globally to receive complaints from survivors, despite accusations that they are institutional and lack transparency.
For survivors who come forward, filing a complaint with the church means handing over the pursuit of justice to the same institution where their abuse took place and which either failed to prevent it or actively did so. concealed.
In the case of the Polish church, an institution that continues to disclose only limited information about abuses committed within its walls proves it cannot be trusted. It is, after all, the same institution that currently refuses to collaborate with the Polish state investigation into child sexual abuse, which has had trouble getting information of the Polish church.
The church only started releasing statistics in 2019 because it was pressured to do so, following public awareness on the issue.
It was in large part thanks to the 2018 film Clergy (Kler) on the dark side of the church, including child abuse, which broke box office records and became the highest-grossing film of the history of Poland.
Then came the documentary Don’t tell anyone (Tylko nie mów nikomu) in 2019, which contained first-hand accounts of abuse by survivors. He explained how the abusers were transferred from parish to parish and continued to have access to children, as well as how the bishops prevented survivors and their families from asserting their rights. The documentary has already been viewed more than 24 million times.
After the documentary’s release, an opinion poll found that nearly 90 percent of those polled agreed that the authority of the church had been decreases, while 67 percent thought the church’s response to the scandal was inadequate.
This lack of genuine initiative on the part of the Church only reinforces the idea that the Church in Poland came to the question far too late to preserve its legitimacy. Two sets of data do not make amends for an institution whose public relations strategy has long been to wait until the scandal is over until it becomes too important to ignore.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.