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Pope John Paul II during a visit to England, in Coventry, Warwickshire, May 1982.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

(Catholic World Report) — “A half-truth is worse than a lie and a half.” This Yiddish proverb perfectly describes the dishonest claims that the future Pope St. John Paul II covered up sexual abuse as Archbishop of Krakow (1962-1978) recently made by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek and the American-owned private Polish news station TVN24. Polish historians have unanimously rejected these accusations as based on manipulative and selective readings of archival evidence, while Polish society has overwhelmingly rallied to the late pope’s defense.

The Polish Left’s priorities

The ideological left in today’s Poland has two main objectives, one short-term and the other long-term. The former is to oust the socially conservative Law and Justice party, which has ruled the country since 2015, out of power. In the long term, meanwhile, the Polish left dreams of creating a social revolution like that implemented by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in Spain in the 2000s, with legal abortion on demand, same sex “marriage,” and state policies guided by the LGBT and gender ideologies.

Of course, the Polish left is concerned about climate change, animal rights, refugees, and other issues dear to its ideological counterparts in North America and Western Europe. But even a cursory reading of the Polish left-liberal media and the pronouncements of progressive Polish politicians reveals an obsession with social issues.

Naturally, the primary obstacle to achieving these goals is the Catholic Church. Whereas the Church in Spain enjoyed close relations with the oppressive dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939–1975), the Catholic Church was the primary defender of Polish identity and independence during the past two centuries, most of which the Poles spent under foreign domination. The great Polish artists of the nineteenth century whose work was filled with patriotic fervor – the composer Frederic Chopin, the novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, the poet Adam Mickiewicz – all found spiritual refuge in the Church.

During World War II, more than a fifth of Polish clergy were killed; of the hundreds of priests murdered in the Dachau concentration camp, more than eighty percent were Poles. Under communist rule (1944-1989), meanwhile, the Church’s moral position grew. Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, primate of Poland from 1948 until his death in 1981, constantly defended the Polish nation, which led him to be imprisoned for three years. Many outspoken Polish priests, like Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, were given the palm of martyrdom.

Many Poles consider Pope St. John Paul II to be their greatest son. Thousands of streets, squares, and schools across Poland bear his name. There is consensus among historians that St. John Paul II played a crucial role in the peaceful collapse of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. As renowned Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis has written: “When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport, he began the process by which communism in Poland – and ultimately elsewhere in Europe – would come to an end.”

Thus, to weaken the Church’s position and enshrine the social progressivist agenda in legislation, the left needs to discredit John Paul II in the eyes of Poles. Furthermore, in his teaching, the Polish pope consistently defended the dignity of the unborn and traditional sexual morality, which makes him a further danger to the Polish left. In his last book, Memory and Identity, for instance, he said of homosexual “marriage”:

It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.

In recent years, Polish leftist news outlets – many of which are foreign owned – have published numerous articles accusing John Paul II of being blind to sexual abuse among the clergy or even covering it up.

I must underline that, to quote John Paul II himself during his address to the American cardinals in April 2002, shortly after the Boston Globe had published accounts of numerous sexual predators in the Boston Archdiocese and the negligent response of Cardinal Bernard Law: “People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”

That the sexual abuse of minors occurs in many different milieus is no excuse for the Church. Over the past two decades, the Catholic Church – both at the central Vatican level and in many local Churches – has instituted many successful policies in preventing such repulsive behaviors and holding negligent bishops accountable. If the Church had always been sufficiently tough on such cases, the liberal media would have no reason to attack it on this count.

Yet the liberal media uses this problem in a clearly manipulative way. This is on full display in Poland, where in recent years liberal outlets have reduced the problem of pedophilia to the Catholic Church. Sure, when a teacher, coach, or celebrity is convicted of sexually abusing minors, the media regardless of their ideological orientation report on this; yet they present this as an “institutional” problem only in the case of the Church.

In Poland, there are about thirty-one million adults and thirty thousand Catholic priests. Thus, only one in one thousand potential child molesters is a priest. If the liberal media genuinely were concerned about protecting children, they would equally scrutinize the remaining 999.

READ: Poland’s high court rules that foreign same-sex unions are not prohibited by constitution

TVN24’s salami tactics

The TVN24 television station has played a leading role in the campaign to discredit St. John Paul II. Its investigative journalist Marcin Gutowski has employed predictable salami tactics in this. In November 2020, TVN24 aired his program Don Stanislao, which accused Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, John Paul II’s secretary of thirty-nine years, of covering up sexual abuse in the Vatican and as Archbishop of Krakow in 2005-2016 (although accusations that Dziwisz filtered information addressed to John Paul II have not been resolved, the Vatican has since acquitted him of accusations of negligence in Krakow).

Several months after the broadcast of Don Stanislao, Gutowski began airing further programs under the title Bielmo, or “leukoma;” the eponymous metaphor implies that John Paul II was blind to the problem of clerical sex abuse.

The television series rests on the false premise that John Paul II did nothing to prevent clerical sexual abuse. In fact, as many Polish Catholic journalists have since pointed out, he was the first pope to issue documents intended to combat the problem, the most important of which was 2001’s Sacramentorum sanctitais tutela, which invested the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with authority to punish abusive priests (previously, this had been under the jurisdiction of bishops, and we know that this failed) and whose procedural norms raised the age below which sexual relations were considered the abuse of a minor from sixteen to eighteen (higher than in most Western nations) and extended the statute of limitations on abuse cases.

Poland’s ‘Indomitable Prince’ a sexual predator?

On March 6, TVN24 broadcast Gutowski’s newest program in the Bielmo series, Franciszkańska 3. Gutowski’s program aired two days before the publication of the book Maxima culpa. Co Kościół ukrywa o Janie Pawle II (“Maxima Culpa: What the Church Is Covering Up About John Paul II”) by Ekke Overbeek, a correspondent of the Dutch press in Poland; Overbeek is prominently featured in the film. Gutowski’s and Overbeek’s works cover largely the same territory. 3 Franciszkańska Street is the address of the Krakow curia; during his visits to Krakow, St. John Paul II would make spontaneous appearances in the curia’s window and talk to crowds of believers. After John Paul’s death in 2005, thousands of Poles gathered there to pray, mourn, and light candles.

While Franciszkańska 3 is an address that evokes fond and emotional memories for many Poles, the “documentary” of the same title seeks to make its viewers instead associate it with sexual abuse and its cover-up. The documentary is filled with dim lighting and music that evokes the score to The Silence of the Lambs; they are clearly designed to make the viewer see the Church as a criminal organization and John Paul II as a psychopathic villain.

Gutowski and Overbeek suggest in their works that John Paul II learned to tolerate sexual abuse because of his mentor, Cardinal Adam Sapieha, archbishop of Krakow in 1911-1951. Sapieha is a hero of the twentieth century Polish Church; for his courageous stand in defense of the Polish nation against its German and communist oppressors and organization of aid to victims of both world wars, Sapieha is known in Poland as the “Indomitable Prince” (apart from being a prince of the Church, Sapieha came from a long line of Lithuanian aristocrats).

Gutowski and Overbeek claim that Sapieha molested and flogged seminarians; perhaps, they suggest, Karol Wojtyła was one of them. Their evidence is the archival testimonies of two Krakow priests to the Ministry of Public Security, the communist secret police (Poland’s equivalent of the Stasi or Securitate), and that of nonagenarian, disgraced retired American Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Gutowski also points out that during World War II, the seminarians of Krakow did not live in the archdiocesan seminary but in the archbishop’s palace, suggesting this was so that Sapieha could molest them. In fact, during the war the Germans had occupied the seminary building, while all education for Poles – “subhuman” Slavs in the Nazi ideology – past elementary school was banned, and so seminary formation had to take place clandestinely.

Before the film and book were released, the left-wing Gazeta Wyborcza published an article on these “findings.” However, they were immediately rejected by historians, including two, Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski and Prof. Marek Lasota, who authored pioneering studies on the collaboration of some Krakow priests with the communist secret services and the regime’s attempts to discredit Cardinal Wojtyła.

They notice that the first priest cited by Gutowski and Overbeek, Anatol Boczek, was suspended by Sapieha several days before giving this testimony for collaborating with the Stalinist “Patriotic Priests” movement. Boczek was an informer of the Ministry of Public Security, which eventually ceased to collaborate with him because he was an alcoholic and sexual deviant, and provided them with unreliable information. The second testimony against Sapieha was signed by Father Andrzej Mistat, Sapieha’s chaplain, after several days of torture.

Furthermore, Isakowicz-Zaleski and Lasota point out, these testimonies were signed in the early 1950s, when the Stalinist regime was at the height of its persecution of the Church. Hundreds of priests were kidnapped, jailed, and murdered, while in 1953, two years after Sapieha’s death, several priests and laypeople working for the Krakow curia were sentenced to life in prison in show trials under trumped up charges of espionage. If the communists had such compelling compromising material about Sapieha, who at that point opposed the regime more vociferously than any other Polish churchman (initially, Cardinal Wyszyński had tried to seek a modus vivendi with the communists), why did they not make use of it in their anti-Catholic campaign in the official press? Isakowicz-Zaleski and Lasota conclude that they decided that it was not credible. (Lest someone be tempted to think that, as a priest of the Archdiocese of Krakow, Isakowicz-Zaleski might be biased towards Sapieha, in his frequent media appearances he is uncompromisingly critical of the Polish bishops for their response to sexual abuse. If the accusations against Sapieha were credible, he would be the first to speak out against him.

It has also been pointed out that at the time of the alleged abuse, Sapieha was eighty-three, spent most of his days bedridden, and was just months from death. Meanwhile, several weeks after the airing of Gutowski’s program and release of Overbeek’s book, new archival research by Tomasz Krzyżak and Piotr Litka revealed that the two testimonies incriminating Sapieha were probably fabricated by a communist secret service officer who eventually lost his job for forging other documents.

This is not exactly surprising: communist regimes in Poland and elsewhere viciously struggled against their opponents, and no institution posed as great a challenge to the implementation of Marxism-Leninism as the Catholic Church. A recently concluded inquiry has revealed that Venerable Father Franciszek Blachnicki, founder of Poland’s Life-Light Movement, was poisoned by communist agents in 1987. Although Blachnicki had been in West Germany at the time, the secret service’s tentacles stretched far past the Berlin Wall.

The second piece of evidence comes from Rembert Weakland, who in Gutowski’s documentary claims that in the 1970s Cardinal Wojtyła told him that the Archbishop of Krakow had molested children in a Nazi concentration camp. This is blatantly incorrect, as Sapieha never was incarcerated during the war. Furthermore, Weakland – who has publicly confessed to having many homosexual lovers, one of whom he paid $450,000 in hush money defrauded from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s funds – has a very negative record on sexual abuse; for this reason, the Midwestern archdiocese decided in 2019 to remove his name from all its buildings.

READ: Dissident homosexual bishop who covered up clerical sex abuse has died

Three (or two?) abusive priests in Krakow

After accusing Cardinal Sapieha of being a predator, Gutowski accuses Cardinal Wojtyła of “covering up” the abuse of three priests in his archdiocese.

Three months before the documentary aired, two Polish journalists, Tomasz Krzyżak and Piotr Litka, published their own investigation of two of them, Eugeniusz Surgent and Józef Loranc, in the daily Rzeczpospolita. Krzyżak later told the website

In the cases I have studied, it is clear that as Archbishop of Krakow Cardinal Karol Wojtyła proceeded in accordance with canon law. There is no reason to claim that he covered up the sexual abuse of minors.

The first of these priests, Eugeniusz Surgent, was from the Archdiocese of Lwów (presently, Lviv, Ukraine). After formerly Polish western Ukraine was seized by the Soviet Union during World War II and its Polish population was forcibly resettled westwards, the Diocese of Lubaczów was created in eastern Poland; it encompassed the tiny areas of the prewar Archdiocese of Lwów that were within Poland’s new postwar borders. This “rump diocese’s” priests studied at the Krakow seminary and worked primarily in other dioceses.

Surgent worked in the Archdiocese of Krakow, but according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law only the bishop of Lubaczów, Jan Nowicki, could punish him. The most the Archbishop of Krakow could do was expel him from his archdiocese, which he did: in 1973, Surgent was credibly accused of having molested boys, and Wojtyła immediately expelled him.

In November 1978, a month after Wojtyła’s election to the papacy, Surgent found employment in the Diocese of Koszalin, a decision on which Wojtyła had no influence; this was decided between the bishops of Koszalin and Lubaczów.

Gutowski and Overbeek accuse Wojtyła of having washed his hands of the case Pontius Pilate style by sending Surgent to the Bishop of Lubaczow rather than defrocking him. But, as noted above, according to canon law, Wojtyła lacked the authority to laicize him.

The two journalists also claim that, before his expulsion by Wojtyła in 1973, Surgent had frequently changed parishes. Based on inference only, Gutowski and Overbeek claim that this is evidence that Wojtyła knew of Surgent’s abuses and shuffled him between parishes to cover this up. In an interview with Poland’s Catholic Information Agency, however, Tomasz Krzyżak points out that Surgent had a “difficult personality” and constantly got into conflicts with his parish vicars, probably the true reason for his frequent change of address.

Guzik spoke with Danuta Rybicka, a longtime friend of John Paul II from his Krakow days. Rybicka told her that she and her husband had a very positive view of Surgent, but Wojtyła told them he had expelled him from Krakow and forced him to live in isolation in a monastery far away. This would prove great prudence on the future pope’s part that only research in the Church’s archives could confirm.

Next is the case of Józef Loranc. In 1970, the parents of several schoolgirls in the village of Jeleśnia informed the parish vicar that their daughters had been molested by the priest. The vicar and Loranc went to Krakow, where Loranc confessed to his misdeeds to the cardinal. The next day, Wojtyła suspended him and forced him to live in isolation in a Cistercian monastery. Wojtyła’s sanctions against Loranc preceded the priest’s arrest by the communist police.

Father Loranc spent a year in prison. After he was released, the five-member Krakow ecclesiastical court dealt with his case and decided, on the basis of canon 2233§3 that, since he had already been punished by civil authorities, it would refrain from levying ecclesiastical punishments.

Yet Wojtyła wrote a letter to Loranc including the following statement:

The abandonment of a punishment by the ecclesiastical court neither cancels the crime, nor does it erase your fault. Every crime must be punished.

Consequently, Wojtyła sent Loranc to a monastery in Zakopane, where he had the boring task of copying liturgical manuscripts rather than pastoral work. Two years later, the parish vicar in Zakopane wrote to Wojtyła asking if Loranc could celebrate Mass to substitute a chronically ill priest. Wojtyła consented but had Loranc continue living in the monastery and forbade him from teaching religious education, work with children and youths, and hearing confessions.

Although this sounds like a prudent approach, Gutowski and Overbeek accuse Wojtyła of a “cover up” because, in 1975, he appointed the priest a hospital chaplain in Chrzanów. The hospital, they emphasize, had a pediatric ward.

Over the past four years, Loranc had been under the close supervision of the parish vicar in Zakopane. During this time, he never abused minors. Thus, apparently convinced that Loranc had reformed himself, Wojtyła gave him a second chance.

Jesus forgave His persecutors, and Karol Wojtyła was a radical Christian witness who forgave Ali Agca, the terrorist who nearly killed him. With Loranc, he was probably likewise moved by Christian forgiveness. Today, we know that returning a convicted child molester to pastoral work would be potentially dangerous. Yet we must bear in mind that this was the 1970s. Only a decade later did psychiatrists realize that pedophilia is a disorder that is nearly impossible to cure as well as grasp its traumatic consequences for its victims. Karol Wojtyła was a wise man, but he was not a medium who possessed insights not available to the specialists of the era.

In the case of the third priest, Bolesław Saduś, Gutowski and Overbeek demonstrate that, in 1972, Wojtyła sent a letter to Cardinal Franz König of Vienna giving permission for Saduś to conduct scholarly research in Austria. They note that Wojtyła does not mention to König that Saduś was a pedophile; thus, his transfer to Austria was a “cover up.”

In their 2022 publications in Rzeczpospolita, Krzyżak and Litka do not deal with Saduś. However, in the first two weeks since the release of the film and book, they combed through 1,500 pages of files of the communist secret services related to the priest; they published an in-depth analysis in the newspaper.

The Polish journalists conclude that Saduś was an active homosexual. While he had a fondness for young men in their late teens and early twenties, there is no evidence he was a pedophile; the only document stating that he had sexual relations with “minors” comes from after Wojtyła’s election as pontiff. Litka and Krzyżak believe that this was probably a false charge intended to discredit the pope; if the communist police had this evidence, why did they not charge Saduś before his move to Austria?

Furthermore, none other than Gutowski and Overbeek themselves interviewed Saduś’s former Austrian parishioners. None of them said anything about predatory behavior; on the contrary, they remembered him very fondly. In an interview with the Polish Press Agency, Krzyżak said that if a prosecutor’s only evidence of Saduś’s alleged pedophilia was that one internal police document from the late 1970s, he would discontinue the case.

Krzyżak and Litka also assert that it is uncertain how much Wojtyła knew about Saduś’s homosexuality. They note that Overbeek’s and Gutowski’s claims that he was well-informed come from generic statements in the communist police files that “everyone in Krakow knew.” They also point out that the communist police read all correspondence and that Wojtyła and König, one of the kingmakers of the second conclave of 1978, were friends; if Wojtyła knew of Saduś’s homosexuality, he probably told König in person.

Such questions could be answered by an honest review of the files of the Krakow Archdiocese’s files. Fortunately, the Polish bishops have recently agreed to form a commission that will study how the Church’s historical response to abuse.

‘Keep your paws off John Paul II’

Over the past couple of weeks, many Polish historians have spoken out about Overbeek’s and Gutowski’s works. Not a single one has been positive. For example, Prof. Paweł Skibiński of the University of Warsaw told RMF FM radio that he was “shocked by the low quality of how these materials have been constructed.” In an interview with Polsat News, Dr. Karol Nawrocki, president of the Institute of National Remembrance, which studies Nazi and communist crimes and whose archives contain the communist police files Gutowski and Overbeek used in their narratives, said: “I cannot say if [the book and film] are the result of shameful deficiencies in historical skills or ill will.”

Polish society has been overwhelmingly incensed by these accusations, and many Poles have responded in defense of the late pope.

For example, sports fans have been particularly vocal in their defense of John Paul II, possibly because, before his debilitating illness, the pope was athletic. During a match, fans of Legia Warsaw unfurled a banner reading: “Keep your paws off John Paul II!” Many similar banners could be seen in many Polish bleachers; my favorite was at a game of the Cracovia ice hockey team, of which the young Wojtyła, who as a youth played hockey on the frozen Skawa River, was an avid supporter: “TVN is lying. JPII will remain a saint. Commies, hands off the Holy Father.” (TVN was founded by the post-communist Mariusz Walter).

Meanwhile, on April 2, the eighteenth anniversary of the death of St. John Paul II, tens, possibly thousands of people across Poland, including yours truly, participated in prayer vigils and marches in defense of John Paul II, even though it was cold and rainy.

This, however, is not anecdotal evidence. Numerous public opinion polls reveal that TVN24’s and Gutowski’s smear campaign has failed in discrediting John Paul II. According to one of them, for the conservative website, 73 percent of Poles consider John Paul II to be a moral authority (up from 70 percent in November 2020, when the McCarrick report, which the liberal Polish media used to attack the late pope, was published). The same poll asked about the media attacks against John Paul, which 51 percent of Poles viewed negatively.

Similarly, an IBRIS poll taken after the controversial “documentary’s” airing shows that 72 percent of Poles consider John Paul II to be a moral authority, up from 58 percent in December 2022. A survey for RMF FM and the daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, meanwhile, shows that 77 percent of Poles did not change their opinion of John Paul II as a result of the media attacks; only 9.8 percent claim their opinion of him worsened, while 6 percent said it improved.

St. John Paul II is not the first pope to be the victim of a slanderous media campaign. While Pope Pius XII was more explicit in his criticism of communism than of Nazism, he saved thousands of Italian Jews by hiding in the Vatican, Castel Gandolfo, and many Roman monasteries. Yet a KGB-orchestrated smear campaign has led him to be dubbed “Hitler’s pope.” Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI was accused of negligence in dealing with sexual abuse as archbishop, but the case against him has been discontinued by German prosecutors due to a lack of evidence. Meanwhile, shortly after his election, Pope Francis was accused of having been chummy with Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s (claims thoroughly debunked in a commendable study by Nello Scavo); Francis’ leading accuser, Horacio Verbitsky, was found to be a snitch for the dictatorship.

Fortunately, Polish historians and much of Polish society have proved immune to these accusations. I am certain, however, that the left will continue its attacks on John Paul II’s sanctity, so those concerned about the historical truth must prepare for a long battle.

Filip Mazurczak is a Polish-American author, lecturer, and translator. His most recent full-length work, an English translation of Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński’s Love and Social Justice: Reflections on Society, has been published by Arouca Press.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Catholic World Report. Published with permission.