Sense of foreboding grips Poland over priest scandal

Archbishop accused of sexually harassing clergy, seminarians

March 22, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

POZNAN, Poland - Judged by the rituals of prayer and classwork, nothing seems amiss at the heart of one of Poland's oldest Roman Catholic dioceses as young men study for the priesthood within sight of a glorious red-brick cathedral.

But the community is struggling with a scandal that is roiling the nation.

The archbishop of Poznan, Juliusz Paetz, has been accused of sexually harassing priests and seminarians, charges that surfaced publicly last month and that come as the Catholic Church has struggled with similar issues elsewhere, including the United States.

Paetz, 67, has denied the allegations, most recently in a pastoral letter he ordered read at churches in the archdiocese, in western Poland. Paetz sought to assure his parishioners that the published information "is a misinterpretation of my words and behavior" and criticized the media "that have already judged and sentenced me."

The denials have not put the case to rest, and Paetz remains secluded in his grand residence across from the cathedral.

The Polish media speculate that the Vatican, which investigated the allegations, will soon decide Paetz's fate, a major turn of events for a figure who rose in the church hierarchy under Pope John Paul II. Paetz worked at the Vatican for more than a decade and returned to Poland as a bishop in 1982, embarking on a path to the high reaches of the church in a country where 90 percent of the population identifies itself as Catholic.

"No matter what end, it will leave a scar on the church's reputation," said Stanislaw Zasada, editor of the Catholic Guide magazine and who has served as a spokesman for the archdiocese. "This divides people as well as priests."

Some here don't believe the allegations and want the archbishop to remain. Others want him to go.

The scandal has remained within the church and hasn't involved the courts. Two emissaries dispatched by the Vatican investigated it in November.

"Poles have been shocked with this," said Marcin Przeciszewski of Poland's Catholic Information Agency. "Poles think we are living in another world, and our church is pure - much purer than in the Western countries. This is like a cold shower to people that the church is not so holy."

Few could have predicted that a leader as respected as Paetz could be at the center of such allegations or that they could arise in Poznan, where the first cathedral in Poland was built in 966 and where seminarians have trained since the 1400s. The seminary's motto: Sanctitati et Veritati, or Holiness and Truth.

Born in 1935 and a priest since 1959, Paetz gained a solid reputation as a bishop in Lomza, near Lithuania. In 1996, he was appointed archbishop of Poznan, returning to his native city, where his father once worked as a butcher.

"His welcome was spontaneous and spectacular," Zasada said of the first days of the archbishop, who began his tenure by accompanying priests to a monument honoring workers killed during a 1956 uprising against the Communists. "People loved him for this."

The next day, Paetz went to the cathedral and told those assembled that his heart was always in Poznan and that he wished to remain in the city the rest of his life, Zasada recalled.

But trouble loomed.

According to Przeciszewski, a seminary student claimed more than two years ago that he was invited to the archbishop's living quarters and that proposals were made "that were not right."

The student notified authorities at the seminary and also "talked of the case among his friends," Przeciszewski said. Other clerics, he said, began discussing their alleged encounters with the archbishop.

"All the priests talking about the case do not have evidence for homosexual acts," he said. "These accusations are only about the behavior of the archbishop, gestures. These clerics considered them as proposals. The archbishop says he is innocent, that he is like a father to them. The situation is not very clear."

According to the national newspaper Rzeczpospolita, the publication that first reported the issue, seminary officials intervened, with the rector, the Rev. Tadeusz Karkosz, prohibiting the archbishop from making unannounced visits to the seminary.

Also, four Poznan priests and a lay official wrote to the Vatican about the archbishop, said a prominent official within the archdiocese who asked to remain anonymous. "For one year, the Vatican knew this story," the official said.

It wasn't until late last year that a formal investigation was launched.

"Last November, two of the pope's representatives were here in Poznan to make an investigation," the official said. "For four days they talked with many people. They were sleeping and working in the seminary, talking with many people on both sides, from the defenders to the accusers. They came back to the Vatican. All that is left is to wait for the decision."

The official said police were not called.

"You can't say wrong things about the church and about priests," the official said. "Everything is in secret."

Eventually, though, the allegations became public, last month, a day after more than 40 academics and journalists sent a letter to the archbishop demanding his resignation.

"If such accusations [of sexual harassment] were presented, it seemed he could no longer serve in his position," said one of the signatories of the letter, Zbigniew Nosowski, editor of Wiez magazine.

Nosowski said many people view the archbishop "as a traitor to the moral rules proclaimed by the church."

But others view the allegations against him differently.

"I do feel sorry for him," said Victoria Podles, a 60-year-old parishioner. "But we do need the pope's decision. This is the only solution we can accept."

Pavel Stel, a 22-year-old marketing student, said those who accuse Paetz must produce the evidence. Until then, Stel will keep an open mind about the archbishop. "He is just a man. He is not Jesus."

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