In a country where only a decade ago the Polish Pope was remembered with the utmost respect, there are surprisingly few people today who would protest against the campaign to pour buckets of slander on John Paul II. Is this the first such case? What methodology has been used to deconstruct the myth of the Polish Pope?
It will hardly be an exaggeration if one considers that the star of the coming weeks on the left-liberal side of Polish public opinion will be Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek. Agora Publishing House has announced the March 8 release of the book “Maxima culpa. John Paul II knew,” under the marketing slogan: “What is the Church hiding about John Paul II?”
Newsweek is already announcing the new publication with a cover featuring a full-figure portrait of John Paul II and the title: “The Hidden Truth About Pedophilia.” The subtitle reads: “Covering up the sexual crimes of his priests, he acted like a cold apparatchik of the Church,” is how Tomasz Sekielski’s Newsweek announces the new publication. The term “apparatchik,” coined to refer to communists, is used as a club to disavow a man who helped end communism.
Around the same time, TVN is to present a report by Marcin Gutowski, author of the book “Bielmo,” on the “liability” of the Polish Pope for incidents of pedophilia while he was still archbishop of Krakow and later head of the universal Church. While Overbeek makes the accusations directly, Gutowski notes some nuances. But both of them – the Dutch journalist and the TVN reporter – are advertised by Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper as the people who reached the testimonies of the broken priests of the Cracow archdiocese, who in testimonies to the Ministry of Public Security accused Wojtyla’s mentor Cardinal Adam Sapieha of sexually abusing seminarians and subordinate priests. Tygodnik Powszechny newspaper joined in the publication of these testimonies. And Tomasz Terlikowski made a public appeal for the creation of a commission independent of the Church to examine the Institute of National Rememberance files, as well as documents of the Krakow Curia and the Holy See.
But the leading heralds of the Left are not waiting for any commissions. They recognize the accusations already as an established fact. Leftist columnist Piotr Szumlewicz announced: “It has come to light that Karol Wojtyla’s friend and clerical authority Adam Sapieha molested clerics. The right wing, as usual, believes that molestation, like covering up crimes of pedophiles, are trifles when they involve Church leaders.” Jagiellonian University professor Jan Hartman commented: “Sapieha – a degenerate. Gulbinowicz – degenerate, Jankowski – degenerate, Orszulik – degenerate, Maliński – scumbag, Zięba – scumbag, Wielgus – scumbag. Mentors, friends, disciples of Wojtyla and the Solidarity movemement. Is there an environment equally depraved as the Church?” And online forums are already buzzing with thousands of tweets from anti-clericals who proclaim that “the facts about John Paul II’s liability for covering up pedophilia are clear” and “everything is already proven.”
Silent are the Krakow professors who have mulled over the fame of the Polish Pope for years. They have nothing substantial to say about the accusations affecting the former Krakow cardinal. Rev. Adam Boniecki, Prof. Andrzej Zoll or, for example, Prof. Adam Strzembosz. The bishops are reluctant to take up the subject. In a country where only a decade ago the Polish Pope was remembered with the utmost respect, there are surprisingly few people today who would protest against the campaign to pour buckets of slander on St. John Paul II. Is this the first such case? What methodology has been used to deconstruct the myth of the Polish Pope?
Exactly 60 years ago in Germany, the play “The Governor. A Christian Tragedy” was on the front pages of newspapers. The titled governor referred to Pope Pius XII. The play exposed Pius XII as at least an indifferent figure, if not a supporter of the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jews. Rolf Hochhuth, 31 years old at the time of the premiere, belonged to a generation that was just getting ready to turn Germany upside down. He was a representative of a generation enjoying the grace of late birth – entering public life already after the fall of Nazism. Hochhuth became the idol of a generation already preparing for revolt, the apogee of which came in 1968.
But the play “The Governor…” was also favorably received by the German ecclesiastical left, which, after John XXIII took the papal throne, promoted the ideas of a universal council and far-reaching changes in the Church. And it was obvious that if one wanted to promote the most far-reaching changes in the structure, doctrine and liturgy of the Church, one must first disavow the previous Pope as a symbol of everything that was wrong and criminal in the Church. In vain the defenders of Pius XII recalled the addresses of thanksgiving by Roman Jews to Pius XII as their protector. They also rejected historians’ explanations that the Pope had to reckon at any moment with the violation of Vatican sovereignty by SS troops in Rome. That as someone responsible for the fate of millions of Catholics, he had to be restrained in formulating assessments of Nazism.
Three elements were clear in the attack on Pius XII, which were later to be repeated in the case of the “unmasking” of John Paul II. First: absolutely arbitrary juggling of facts detached from the realities of the era in order to prove guilt. Second: ethical maximalism, which accounts for any diplomatic restraint of the Pope in the most severe way possible by comparing his actions to the most demanding norms of Christianity. While forgetting that the Pope also sometimes has to reckon with the political realities of the world in which he operates. And finally, third: taking advantage of the fact that the new generation of journalists, editors-in-chief of the media, are not personally familiar with the complexities and specifics of the war years – or, in JPII’s case, communism – and it is extremely easy for them to accept simple insinuating theories of cause and effect.
This was the first wave of attacks on the Pope, who had strongly offended the left in the 1950s for his principled anti-communism. In the case of the dispute over Pius XII, moreover, there was a kind of synergy. In the West, his legend was challenged by young contesters, and behind the Iron Curtain Hochhuth’s theses were taken up by the propaganda of communist states. It was no different in Poland. In Warsaw, the premiere of “The Governor” was shown in April 1966 at the National Theater in Warsaw, directed by Kazimierz Dejmek. Let’s not forget that April 1966 marked the beginning of the rivalry between the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland and Primate Stefan Wyszynski over the shape of the celebration of the millennium of the Polish state.
In the 1990s, attacks on Pius XII again gained vigor due to the publicity of the book “Hitler’s Pope” by the English writer John Cornwell. This time the book served to perpetuate the thesis, which appeared to some scholars, that the genesis of the Holocaust was hostility to Jews having its origin in Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It seemed that the operation to disavow Pius XII would be discredited when, in 2007, former Romanian Securitate general Ion Pacepa revealed information that Hochhuth had been inspired to write a play about Pius XII by Soviet secret service officer Gen. Ivan Agayants. As part of a special KGB operation, Agayants allegedly provided Hochhuth in 1963 with fabricated material incriminating the Pope with the help of the Securitate. When a journalist from the Gazeta Prawna daily newspaper called Hochhuth in February 2007 and asked if the latter had indeed been in contact with Agayants, the exasperated playwright terminated the conversation.
The revelations of the former Romanian security general did not make much of an impression on supporters of the thesis of Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope.” They responded that perhaps Hochhuth’s play was indeed inspired by the Soviet services, but in the meantime enough new books have been written proving Pius XII’s sympathies for Nazism that it changes nothing in the whole matter.
The anti-communist Pope was very effectively discredited. Catchy accusations proved much appealing than the arguments of his defenders. The liberal media picked up on the accusations, and then they have already been repeated by many others, considering it a fact that requires no discussion.
AFTER PIUS XII – WOJTYLA
To many naive Polish Catholics, it seemed that a similar discrediting campaign would be much more difficult in the case of Karol Wojtyla. The Polish Pope, unlike Pius XII, did not have a diplomatic episode in Weimar Germany. His popularity was incomparably greater during his lifetime than that of Pius XII.
Even physiognomic considerations seemed to privilege the former archbishop of Krakow. The tall mountain man with strong, determined features and a deep voice was far more media-savvy than Pius with his sharp facial features and eyes hidden behind thick glasses. The Polish Pope brought crowds from America to Korea to their knees, while Pius XII shunned the crowds. Finally, John Paul II’s commitment to reconciliation with the Jewish community seemed to put him in a much stronger position than Pius XII, who was wary of dialogue with Judaism.
Yet already during John Paul II’s pontificate, his implacable enemies were revealing themselves. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people greeted the Pope in New York, Mexico City, or his native Krakow. But already in the Netherlands, groups of very aggressive critics of his moral teaching were waiting for him. During the Polish Pope’s visits to Paris, parades were organized in which a puppet depicting him had a condom placed over his nose.
The agenda of accusations against our compatriot was different then. The prevailing accusations were that John Paul II’s sustained opposition to the use of condoms meant he was responsible for the AIDS crisis that was taking its toll in Africa. The Pope was outraged that he reportedly expressed the opinion that Bosnian women raped during the war in Yugoslavia should overcome their trauma and give birth to children from rape as a triumph of love over hate. Those who in Poland pointed to cases of insane outright hatred of John Paul II were reassured in the West after 1989 that where ever, but in Poland this type of sentiment would not occur.
Unfortunately, they soon began to happen. The forerunner here was Jerzy Urban, who seemed to be waging a personal crusade of revenge against the “vicar of Niegowic1” for his part in smashing communism. Yes, the concessionary fare against John Paul II lasted for a relatively long time. Gazeta Wyborcza earned special supplements on the occasion of the Polish Pope’s subsequent visits to his homeland. But eventually direct attacks on Karol Wojtyla began to appear in the pages of Wyborcza. Very often they were the domain of people who had abandoned the priesthood. In particular, Stanislaw Obirek, a former priest, slowly graded the primitivism of his attacks and was not met with much polemic.
The editors of Gazeta Wyborcza were taken over by younger and younger editors with less and less personal memory of the Polish Pope. They increasingly published texts by Western journalists who visited Poland, looking for evidence of the pope’s affair with Wanda Półtawska or that the pope had a child with some woman.
Time proved decisive in changing attitudes toward the Pope. Beginning around 2010, a generation emerged that had never personally encountered the charisma of the Polish Pope. This generational change overlapped with the revolution of the Internet, which for the young became the only source of knowledge about the world. The rest was completed by scandals concerning the phenomenon of pedophilia incidents that were swept under the rug. “Personal enemies of God” found it easiest to attack Karol Wojtyla precisely in this field.
The role of the main “hammer on Wojtyla” is played by a Dutch journalist who, although has lived in Poland for years, has not yet been known as an investigator of the history of the Polish Church. It is not without significance that Overbeek is also a representative of a nation extremely critical of the Polish Pope. It is also noteworthy that the incriminating testimony of Sapieha by one of two agents in cassocks of the Cracow Ministry of Public Security was reported by Prof. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir on the sidelines of her research on the Catholic Church’s reactions to the Kielce pogrom.
Again, the very substantive comments and serious objections of archival researchers on the surveillance of the Church by the security services in the 1950s, such as Rev. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski and Dr. Marek Lasota, do not affect the nuanced titles of texts on the guilt of Cardinal Sapieha in the liberal-left media. Seemingly, in theory, “everything still needs to be investigated,” but the headlines suggested the established guilt of the hierarch, who died in 1951. The whole situation, by the way, is very convenient for critics of the Church. Because, in fact, the accusations against Sapieha play a supporting role to the frontal attack on JPII. They are meant to prove that Karol Wojtyla’s alleged tolerance of sexual abuse cases was taken over from his church mentor, Cardinal Sapieha. If Wojtyla had been ordained not by Sapieha, but, for example, by Cardinal August Hlond, some testimony discrediting Hlond would have been sought. Without the slightest sense of embarrassment, considerations are floated as to whether Wojtyla himself enjoyed Cardinal Sapieha’s affection because of some sexual entanglement.
In short, in the media’s coverage of the Cardinal Sapieha affair, all standards of caution and fairness that are still in place have been abandoned. Testimonies forced on priests broken by the security services are presented almost as proven facts. Tomasz Terlikowski even went so far as to claim that: “Rejecting the information [contained in the testimonies – Ed.] by discrediting the witness is a serious mistake, which shows a lack of understanding of the effects of sexual abuse on the person harmed.” As Terlikowski argues, “abuse of this kind can also lead to alcoholism, to serious personal problems in the person harmed. And anyone who has encountered victims of sexual harm is aware that the effects of such an experience can be truly drastic and destructive. It is also worth being aware that the same model of discrediting the harmed has been promoted for years. Wronged children were never believed because they came from unsuitable families, because their parents had problems, and adults were not believed because, after all, they had personal problems. If you come into contact with people who have been wronged, unfortunately, you can see how the same structures of thinking come back over and over again. Structures that perpetuate the harm and try to force silence.”
Thus, Terlikowski’s argumentation indicates that the fact that the author of the accusations is a broken priest who formulated his accusations during secret police interrogations is by no means a weakening of the credibility of such an accusation, but, on the contrary, by paradox, its alleged strengthening and credibility. One can see in Terlikowski’s thinking a certain echo of the phenomenon that appeared in America on the occasion of the “Me Too” accusation campaign. When attempts were made to discuss the accusations, feminists proclaimed that any such polemic was an additional humiliation of the victim. They pushed the thesis that the victim’s testimony was conclusive and that there was no longer any room to examine its credibility.
Another break from previous standards was the argument by supporters of the investigation of Archbishop Sapieha’s case that there was something to it, because “senior priests in conversations mentioned strange inclinations” of the Cracow metropolitan. Only that these recollections may have echoed a defamation action carried out by the Cracow security service against a cardinal considered a symbol of “reaction.”
And finally, one last thing. Until now, in a situation where the accusations involved a person who died 72 years ago, it was considered that the issue could not be clearly explained. If only because of the fact that the priests who could still remember Sapieha when he was alive may be around hundred today. But, as it turns out, when such a powerful media outlet as Gazeta Wyborcza unleashes the Cardinal Sapieha affair, much of the media and parts of the Catholic mainstream repeat the allegations as if they were her children. They don’t hesitate to print very drastic testimonies, the manner of which should arouse far-reaching caution. No one wondered whether the mere printing of these allegations would throw mud on the memory of Krakow’s “Prince of the Unbroken” once and for all.
WHO RULES GAZETA WYBORCZA?
In retrospect, it is possible to put forward the thesis that the big interview with Adam Michnik conducted by Dominika Wielowieyska, in which the head of Gazeta Wyborcza defended the good name of John Paul II, was simply a media preparation for the whole anti-Vatican offensive. First, as an anesthesia against publishing accusations against Cardinal Sapieha, and in the background as a kind of alibi for Agora’s decision to publish Ekke Overbeek’s book. Adam Michnik is the chief editor of Gazeta Wyborcza. It is difficult to assume that he did not know much earlier about the Dutch author’s intention to print the book. If the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza had applied even elementary standards of objectivity to the book, he should have recognized that it is specifically written to support a thesis and completely bends the facts.
Agora publishing agency made the text of the book available to more than a dozen publicists, dealing with Church issues, from the liberal camp, but also to some “open Catholics.” The book began to live its life among Warsaw journalists. It also reached me – I read it and will soon be eager to write a critical review of it in Do Rzeczy weekly. Based on what I have read, I can conclude that Agora’s marketing of this book is a strategic decision, while Michnik’s defense of JP II appears to be a tactic.
Michnik’s acknowledgments and admiration of the defense of John Paul II completely overlooked the basic question. Why did Michnik accept Agora’s publication of this book – and the repetition of highly questionable allegations? Unless we consider that Adam Michnik is no longer in control of anything at the newspaper. Just why, in that case, is he still proclaimed chief editor of the daily newspaper?
In 2021, in the pages of his own newspaper Adam Michnik himself criticized what he called “tramway anticlericalism.” He referred to it as a simplistic way of writing about the Church and the faith, which he objected to. But it was nowhere else than in the pages of Gazeta Wyborcza that this simplistic anti-Catholicism was given credence by printing texts by Jan Hartman, Magdalena Środa, Tadeusz Bartos or, more recently, the duo Stanislaw Obirek -Artur Nowak. Thus, Adam Michnik practically broke with the tradition of his erstwhile book Kościół, lewica, dialog (“Church, Left, Dialogue”). Back then, in the late 1970s, he admitted to having mistakenly viewed the Catholic Church as a hotbed of reaction and darkness. As it turns out, this flirtation with the Church was only a temporary alliance, necessary for the secular left circles to join forces with the influential Church in Poland to fight the People’s Republic of Poland. When the People’s Republic ceased to exist, the Church went from the status of a comfortable ally back to the role of an opponent to be fought with all ruthlessness.
This is the line and the editorial practice of Gazeta Wyborcza today. And Adam Michnik’s chaperone text changes little here. The destruction of the authority of John Paul II is considered an intermediate stage in the permanent marginalization of the Church’s influence on the younger generation. One can only wonder why this operation finds support from so many people nominally emphasizing their faith. People who, when an aggressive media campaign is unleashed, indirectly lend credence to it with their statements. It’s a sad spectacle.
1 village located 25 km southeast of Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla was first appointed priest in the local parish
This article was published in March 2023 in “Do Rzeczy” weekly.