WARSAW — Poland’s Catholic Church, assailed by accusations that it for years ignored the sexual abuse of minors by clergy members, on Monday acknowledged that from July 2018 through the end of last year, it had received complaints of abuse against 368 boys and girls.
Pleading for “forgiveness” from “those wronged and all those shocked by the evil in the church,” the head of the Polish church, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, said the figures “do not express the full depth of the drama of sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by some clergymen.”
Nearly half the latest cases reported related to accusations of abuse against victims under age 15.
The timing of the figures’ release — just days after the Vatican said it was investigating accusations against a retired Polish cardinal of negligence on sexual abuse — suggested an effort by the Catholic Church in Poland to show that it is serious about grappling with sex crimes by the clergy, an issue that has badly tarnished its reputation and antagonized Rome.
But the figures, compiled by the church in a voluntary survey of dioceses and monasteries across Poland, gave no clear indication of whether the problem had grown worse in recent years. More than three quarters of complaints reported on Monday related to incidents of alleged abuse that occurred before 2018, with some dating back to 1958.
An earlier survey released in 2019 found that 382 abuse complaints had been received by the church over the previous 28 years.
In a country where 90 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, the issue of sexual abuse among some members of the clergy attracted little public attention until the release in 2019 and 2020 of two documentaries that provided shocking testimony from victims who had been abused as children.
The Polish church has been scrambling since to assure worshipers that it has the problem under control. Several senior churchmen have been forced to resign or go into early retirement.
In the latest such case, the Vatican on Monday accepted the apparently forced resignation of a bishop in southeastern Poland, Zbigniew Kiernikowski, who had been placed under investigation for failing to act against the sexual abuse of a minor in his former diocese.
The Catholic Church in Poland, one of the country’s most respected institutions, still enjoys high esteem among many Poles but has struggled to halt a steady decline in regular churchgoing, particularly among young people who view the church as too closely aligned with the country’s deeply conservative and openly anti-gay governing party, Law and Justice.
The church’s support for a tightening of Poland’s already strict restrictions on abortion prompted a wave of protests that started late last year and added to growing disenchantment with the Catholic Church among many young people.
Archbishop Polak, speaking to journalists on Monday in Warsaw, said data collected by the church about sexual abuse demonstrated that the church deserved the public’s trust and that its “system for responding to harm against minors is working.”
Particularly damaging to the church’s reputation have been accusations of negligence against the retired archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who had previously served as personal secretary to Pope John Paul II. A revered figure in Poland and now canonized as a saint, John Paul II had also served as Krakow archbishop before moving to Rome.
Tolek Magdziarz contributed reporting.