Political fighting intensifies in Poland as film documenting Catholic clergy's abuse of kids goes viral to millions

Political fighting intensifies in Poland as film documenting Catholic clergy's abuse of kids goes viral to millions
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw May 15, 2019

The documentary film “Just Don’t Tell Anyone” that exposes child abuse by Polish Catholic priests has gone viral in the homeland of Saint John Paul II with 14.5mn views less than five days after its premiere on YouTube.

The film’s skyrocketing popularity is making political leaders take positions on the issue in an attempt to turn public outrage to their favour, as the campaign for the European Parliament elections on May 26 is heating up.

The election is key for all sides of the extremely divided political scene in Poland. The incumbent populists from Law and Justice (PiS) are hoping a victory will give the party a fresh momentum before the national election in the autumn.

The opposition’s main grouping, the European Coalition (KE) – a conglomerate of several opposition parties led by the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) – is looking, in turn, to weaken PiS and capitalise on their potential success in the autumn vote to remove it from power.

But no matter how weakened by the film Poland’s Catholic church might be, it still wields great power in Poland. That has presented mainstream parties with a conundrum – how to address popular outrage against the Church but not become its enemy.

The ruling PiS - always seen as close to the Church for its conservatism and self-proclaimed mission to defend "traditional values" - appears to have sided with the Catholic hierarchy, risking alienating voters angered by the film.

In response to the documentary, PiS vowed to introduce harsher jail terms for paedophilia, which, if new regulations were passed, would be sanctioned with up to 30 years in prison. The government is also going to raise the age of consent from 15 to 16 years.

Critics pointed out, however, that the ruling party did not plan to change penalties for covering up crimes of sexual abuse against minors – of which the high-ranked Catholic clergy has been accused by the film, similarly to cases in other countries like Ireland or the US.

PiS also came under fire for lack of reaction against individual priests shown in the film and their seniors. 

Just over a week prior, the police acted fast to detain a woman for adding a rainbow halo – an LGBT symbol – to pictures of the Black Madonna, a revered religious symbol in Poland. 

“Whoever raises his hand against the church, raises his hand against Poland,” PiS’ chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski said at the time.

Meanwhile, the government-friendly media are presenting the film as an attack on the Church. There are other professions among which paedophilia is more widespread than among the clergy, the state-run television TVP claimed.

PO has also tabled laws in the parliament aiming at cracking down on sexual abuse of children. The party has proposed, for example, that crimes of sexual abuse of minors would not have a statute of limitations.

Still, the party also preferred to talk about paedophilia in general terms rather than target the Church’s organised system of protecting the offenders, which might require holding bishops to account. PO did little to address the problem of abuse by the Catholic clergy when media exposed it during the party's two terms in power in 2007-2015.

Smaller parties both on the left and the right are now attacking PiS and PO for being too lenient on the Church. If the public outrage about the film persists until the election on May 26, it might see some PiS voters shift to the far-right grouping Konfederacja. 

More liberal and left-leaning Poles could consider supporting Wiosna (Spring) and Lewica Razem (The Left Together) who have come out as much more uncompromising in the aftermath of the film, directly attacking members of the Episcopate.

Polls carried out after the premiere of the film are yet to come out. In the most recent survey, carried out by IBRiS and published on May 12, PiS is leading the race for the European Parliament at 39.1%. The European Coalition is at 35%.

Wiosna comes a distant third at 7%, IBRiS poll showed. Other parties are close to the 5% threshold required to win seats: Kukiz 15 is polling at 5.3%, Konfederacja at 4.3% and Lewica Razem at 2.5%.

Party positions on the Church and the abuse perpetrated by the clergy could still shift, as parties are reportedly commissioning internal surveys to probe the effect of “Just Don’t Tell Anyone” on the electorate.