Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, in Kraków (CNS)

Apparently, it is in NATO’s interest to prevent public discussion of Pope John Paul II’s role in covering up child abuse. At any rate, this was the message sent out into the world by Poland’s right-wing government in early March. 

Not three weeks after President Joe Biden’s second state visit to Poland inside of a year, Poland’s foreign ministry issued a “summons” to U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski regarding an alleged campaign “to weaken the Polish Republic’s ability to fend off a potential enemy as well as its resistance to threats.” The so-called campaign began with a documentary film aired on March 6 on Poland’s TVN, whose principal owner is actually Warner Bros. Discovery. TVN is well known for its opposition to the current government—in fact, given the government’s stranglehold on state-subsidized as well as religious media, TVN has effectively become Poland’s only independent TV network. 

The film, Franciszkańska 3 (named for the street address of Karol Wojtyła’s residence as Archbishop of Kraków), offers detailed testimony and investigative reporting showing that the future pope covered up child molestation by priests in his archdiocese. Mere discussion of this testimony, according to Poland’s current minister of culture, is tantamount both to an “attack on the Polish national interest” and to “hybrid warfare” that will weaken Poland’s ability to fulfill its NATO obligations and to support its neighbor, Ukraine.

Biden is only the second Roman Catholic president in U.S. history, and the first sitting Catholic U.S. president to visit Poland. (John F. Kennedy visited as a senator.) His February trip to Warsaw overlapped with Ash Wednesday, yet rather than attend Mass publicly in the company of Polish officials, Biden attended a private Mass in his suite at the Marriott. The choice of celebrant is telling: it was not a bishop, but an Augustinian monk who is former head of the Polish Council for Christian-Jewish dialogue and is closely tied to Poland’s storied but rapidly dwindling movement of liberal Catholic intellectuals.

Biden has indicated that his private meeting with John Paul II in 1980, when Biden was a senator, was among the highlights of his life. But now, visiting that pontiff’s homeland, a country that ranks, demographically and historically, among the most Catholic in the world, on an important day in the Catholic liturgical calendar, the deeply Catholic U.S. president avoided any direct contact with Poland’s Catholic hierarchy.

Apparently, it is in NATO’s interest to prevent public discussion of Pope John Paul II’s role in covering up child abuse.

To be fair, the Catholic Church worldwide has confronted child abuse within its ranks only belatedly, partially, and amid a whirlwind of obfuscation. Even serious scholarly histories of the Catholic Church have barely grazed the surface (a crucial exception is Notre Dame provost John McGreevy’s authoritative new survey of modern Catholic history). The Polish pope himself was at the heart of this problem, amassing as he did throughout his twenty-seven-year pontificate a record of protecting the Church as an institution at the expense of justice for victims and punishment for perpetrators. Too often, the word “mercy” justified repeated transfers of recidivists from one diocese to another, one school to another. Films and investigative reporting have amply documented the abuses and their concealment; in the United States, 2015’s Spotlight and the haunting 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa stand out. In Poland, however, the government and the episcopal hierarchy march in lockstep to prevent a serious national reckoning with child abuse by Catholic priests—because that reckoning would have to start with Poland’s most famous export to the world, Pope John Paul II.

2023 is an election year in Poland; as in so many other countries, the politics of the past decade has demonstrated that fomenting culture wars electrifies the base. Despite its international leadership on Ukraine and its attempts to broaden its constituency with social-benefits programs, Poland’s right-wing government is not assured of victory. That being said, its sudden militancy in defense of John Paul II may be one of the most egregious examples of manipulating national memory that twenty-first-century Poland has seen yet. On March 9, at the initiative of Poland’s minister of culture, the lower house of Parliament voted on a resolution “in defense of John Paul II’s good name.” The scene was spectacular: scores of MPs cast votes while holding poster-sized votive images of John Paul II, after which the house’s speaker delivered an oration condemning “the foreign-owned television station operating in Poland” that aired the documentary, equating TVN with “the worst years of communist propaganda.” A critical center-right MP fired back, “You are trying to sign John Paul II up for PiS [Poland’s current ruling party], not to defend him,” for which he was shouted down as an anti-Polish “Judas.” Two days after this legislative spectacle, Polish president Andrzej Duda declared that the “memory of Saint John Paul II represents an integral element of our national heritage and is part of the Polish national interest, which we must defend with absolute devotion and decisiveness, without consideration for the consequences. This is our civic, patriotic, and historic responsibility.”

Completely lost amid this militant grandstanding are the voices of victims of child abuse by Catholic clergy—voices once again silenced in the face of realpolitik.

Yet what makes John Paul II such a powerful standard-bearer for Poland’s global standing goes far beyond national politics. The Law and Justice party’s parliamentary speaker underscored, after all, that the documentary came from a “foreign-owned”—i.e. not really Polish—TV station. This is a tactic well known from Vladimir Putin’s playbook for shutting down Russian civil society under the pretext that its institutions were serving foreign masters. Summoning the U.S. ambassador to the Polish Foreign Ministry three weeks after the country hosted President Biden wasn’t just about Polish history or Polish elections, but about Poland’s role in the defense of Ukraine. The takeaway message: an open and frank discussion about John Paul II’s past not only threatens the national interest, but also acts as “hybrid warfare” to weaken Poland’s effectiveness as NATO’s eastern bulwark.

We don’t yet know what Ambassador Brzezinski thought of all this, but two things are clear. First: bittersweet as it must have been for him personally, President Biden was right to keep his Catholicism private in the homeland of a pope who was an important source of inspiration for him. To do otherwise would be to lend ammunition to the fundamentalist faction guiding Polish memory politics. Second: proclaiming itself the international defender of the good name of John Paul II—in many respects, the defining pope of the Cold War—in an era of renewed conflict with Russia is such a strong card that it apparently entitles the Polish government to renew its longstanding attempts to silence critical media outlets. Completely lost amid this militant grandstanding are the voices of victims of child abuse by Catholic clergy—voices once again silenced in the face of realpolitik.

Piotr H. Kosicki is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland. His latest book (with Wolfram Kaiser) is Political Exile in the Global Twentieth Century: Catholic Christian Democrats in Europe and the Americas (2021).

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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