How the stories circulating about St John Paul II are baseless speculation

Since March, Poland has witnessed an unprecedented attack on the reputation of St John Paul II. Up to that point, the Polish pope had enjoyed fairly widespread respect in his homeland, and even the critical liberal media had not been openly hostile to him.  The climax of the attack came on March 8, with a The post How the stories circulating about St John Paul II are baseless speculation appeared first on Catholic Herald.

How the stories circulating about St John Paul II are baseless speculation

Since March, Poland has witnessed an unprecedented attack on the reputation of St John Paul II. Up to that point, the Polish pope had enjoyed fairly widespread respect in his homeland, and even the critical liberal media had not been openly hostile to him. 

The climax of the attack came on March 8, with a book entitled Maxima culpa: What the Church is Hiding about John Paul II by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, who for 10 years has specialised in tracking down paedophilia in the Catholic Church in Poland. The author is also a correspondent for the Dutch daily Trouw in Warsaw. The book was preceded by a series of articles promoting it, published in late February in Poland’s largest daily paper, the liberal-left Gazeta Wyborcza. In turn, the book was published by the publisher of that paper, the Agora company. 

The paper’s editors chose to promote the book by shocking its audience with apparent revelations about the alleged sadistic sexual behaviour of the former Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow – Adam Sapieha – Karol Wojtyła’s mentor, who died in 1951. 

He was said to have sexually assaulted seminarians and priests. The editors’ goal was to highlight the Dutch journalist’s suggestion that Karol Wojtyła must have been molested during his seminary years by his bishop and therefore was later to remain indiffer-ent to cases of sexual abuse by subordinate clergy. 

The journal’s publication was reinforced by articles discussing the theme of Cardinal Sapieha’s alleged sexual molestation of the young Wojtyła, which appeared in liberal Catholic media (including Tygodnik Powszechny and the Więź monthly portal). 

Overbeek’s theses were supported by Marcin Gutowski, a Polish investigative journalist working for Poland’s largest liberal TV station, TVN. On March 6, two days before the book’s release, a one-and-a-half-hour reportage entitled “Franciszkańska 3”, devoted to the alleged cover-up of sexual crimes by priests in the Krakow archdiocese under Cardinal Wojtyła, was broadcast in prime time. The allegations against Cardinal Sapieha were also repeated. The material was presented in a form appropriate for reporting on serial killers and sensational crimes, although it did not present any definitive evidence.  

So, the entire network of sympathetic media decided to pass judgment against St John Paul II and discredit his mentor, Cardinal Sapieha, who was an important figure for the archdiocese of Krakow and to Poland. On what basis, exactly? 

Overbeek and Gutowski relied on a meticulous analysis of sources produced by the Communist political police at the time, one of whose main tasks was to control, persecute and discredit the Catholic clergy. They also used the results of a journalistic investigation that lasted at least two-and-a-half years (so says Gutowski), covering not only Poland, but also Vienna and the United States, amongst others. 

The documents cited by the journalists, however, revealed only three cases of sexual abuse of interest to the authors during the 15 years Karol Wojtyła served as Metropolitan of Krakow. All three are fundamentally different in nature. 

The case that is most fully known to the public is that of Fr Józef Loranc (who died in 1992), who in 1970 sexually abused girls in the rural parish where he worked. The authors of the attack accuse Cardinal Wojtyła of hiding the case, while sources indicate that in fact the episcopal curia and the metropolitan himself reacted with lightning speed. Within a few days of their learning of the allegations, the priest was removed from the parish, removed from teaching religion to children and within two weeks suspended, which at the time was the harshest possible punishment. Fr Loranc then went before a state court, was convicted and served his prison sentence. After his release, he was not reinstated to catechise or hear confessions. He was first isolated for several years in a monastery, and then served as a hospital chaplain.  

The second case was that of Fr Eugene Surgent (who died in 2008), a priest from the Lubaczow diocese working in the archdiocese of Krakow, who molested underage boys. He was first accused of molestation in 1969. The priest was given a written reprimand and, after an exploratory interview, it was considered an isolated incident. In 1973, however, there were repeated incidents of sexual abuse of altar boys. At that time, although the priest denied his guilt, he was nevertheless expelled from the Krakow archdiocese by Cardinal Wojtyła and placed at the disposal of his own bishop, which at the time was the only option open to the archbishop of Krakow. Unfortunately, he was transferred to further pastoral posts and committed further sexual assaults, but it was beyond the ability of the Metropolitan of Krakow to deal with him, although others should certainly have done so. 

This is a tragic case, but it can hardly be blamed on Karol Wojtyła. 

The third case described by the accusers was that of Fr Bolesław Saduś (who died in 1991). He was first the head of the catechetical department of the Krakow curia, and then the pastor of an important Krakow parish. In 1972, he was involved in a homosexual scandal. He was also a secret collaborator with the Communist political police, the SB, and the Communist secret services collected compromising information about him related to his homosexual activity. In 1972, Archbishop Wojtyła sent him to Austria to study, but while he was there he took a job as a parish priest. There is no confirmed information on any paedophilic activity at all. We are also not aware of any sexual abuse on his part in Vienna. At the moment, we do not know whether Archbishop Wojtyła sent him to Vienna because of his entanglement with the secret services or because of his homosexual activity.  

To sum up: out of the three cases described by the late Pope’s detractors, one was characterised by extraordinary decisiveness in admonishing those guilty of abuse on the part of Archbishop Karol Wojtyła as Metropolitan of Krakow; in the second case there was abuse, but it was the responsibility of the local bishop to deal with, and it was not the fault of Cardinal Wojtyła that he failed to do so; and in the third case there is confusion about how the priest’s behaviour was dealt with, though it does not seem to have been connected with child abuse.   

The accusations against Cardinal Adam Sapieha are a separate matter. He was accused of molesting seminarians and priests on the basis of two sources produced by the Communist political police (only one of which is cited by Overbeek). One of them, dating back to 1950, is the testimony of Fr Alfred Boczek, who claimed that he had been molested as a seminarian before the war and twice sadistically abused by Sapieha as early as 1950. The priest, who collaborated with the Communist authorities, was in personal conflict with the metropolitan, was an alcoholic and a sexual deviant (he sexually assaulted girls, for which the Communist authorities did not prosecute him). 

Archbishop of Warsaw Cardinal Wyszynski (left), with Cardinal Wojtyla, soon to become Pope John Paul II, 1978. Printed following the death of Wyszynski on May 28th 1981. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This is not to say his accusations were untrue, but it provides a context for them. 

The second source, the alleged testimony of Fr Andrew Mistat, the cardinal’s secretary, was supposedly written in 1949, but it is not known whether it was ever actually submitted to Communist authorities. Its text may have been, as the media suggested, fabricated by officers of the Communist political police to lend credibility to Fr Boczek’s accusations. Even if it were considered credible, it should be noted that Fr Mistat says nothing about the molestation of seminarians. 

Even the Communists found the testimony unreliable, but this did not prevent Overbeek and Gazeta Wyborcza from treating this drastic and unconfirmed account as fact and the basis for a series of speculations about the alleged molestation of Karol Wojtyła.  

Interestingly, two journalists from another Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, Tomasz Krzyzak and Piotr Litka, in a press analysis published at the end of 2022 on the two cases of Fr Loranc and Fr Surgent, found Cardinal Wojtyła’s behaviour, based on the same materials, to be absolutely correct; and then, as a result of an independent investigation, revealed the serious doubts that exist around Fr Mistat’s testimony.  

Despite repeatedly asserting that their investigations were meticulously carried out, the authors of the reports slandering Cardinal Wojtyła and Cardinal Sapieha did not hesitate to treat hypotheses as fact, to use unreliable sources and to draw conclusions contrary to the testimony of witnesses. (Overbeek several times cited the “body language” of a witness as a sufficient – and sole – argument in support of her assertions). 

In his reportage, Gutowski also cited as an independent expert and unquestioned authority Archbishop Rembert Weakland, former Metropolitan of Milwaukee, who resigned in 2002 in the wake of a financial and sexual scandal in his diocese, which Gutowski did not inform viewers about. 

At no time did the authors also mention the fact that the Metropolitan of Krakow could not benefit from the help of the anti-Church Communist police and prosecutors, who were able to cover up the moral crimes of priests who supported their actions against the Church. 

Despite all these complications, the authors focused on the claim that the future pope had covered up paedophilia during his ministry in Krakow, and that he himself had been the victim of sexual abuse by his bishop. 

The unsatisfactory nature of the evidence for all this came to light very quickly; none of the journalists or their editors, however, backed down from their accusations. The attack on Pope John Paul II unfortunately circulated on social media too, where the accusations were inevitably amplified. According to the authors of the online slurs provoked by the media allegations, it was the pope himself who was a paedophile, an allegation for which there is not even a trace of suggestion in the sources. 

In this situation, therefore, it is not surprising that Polish Catholics reacted to the charges: thousands of the faithful went on marches, spontaneously organised on the anniversary of the pope’s death – April 2 – to remember Pope John Paul II. Dozens of them were held throughout the country.  

This is certainly not enough. The allegations made by journalists should encourage those who actually know the reality of the activities of Karol Wojtyła – St John Paul II – to share the facts of his life and ministry, not only in Krakow, but also in Rome. 

Prof Paweł Skibiński teaches at Warsaw University, and specialises in the pontificate of John Paul II.

The post How the stories circulating about St John Paul II are baseless speculation appeared first on Catholic Herald.