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Spotlight Report

Polish cleric resigns amid scandal

Priest denies the accusations; says his actions misinterpreted

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff and Brian Whitmore, Globe Correspondent, 3/29/2002

A prominent Polish archbishop with ties to Pope John Paul II resigned yesterday amid accusations that he had made sexual advances on young clerics, providing what some see as a dramatic demonstration that clergy sexual abuse is not just a problem in the United States.

Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan denied the allegations against him, but said he needed to leave ''for the good of the church.''

Paetz's resignation is a symbolic blow to the church because the archbishop was close to three popes and lives in the current pope's home country.

''This is huge, and it's going to give this issue a lot more salience in the Vatican, because anything that happens in the US is just seen as `those Americans,' but Poland is the native land,'' said Maryjane Osa, an assistant professor of government and international studies at the University of South Carolina who studies the role of the Catholic Church in Poland. ''And it may have some significance for what's going to happen in Boston, because this is going to increase the pressure on Cardinal Law to follow in Paetz's footsteps and think about the unity and peace of the church.''

However, a spokesman for Law said there is no parallel between the Polish situation and the circumstances in Boston, because Paetz stands accused of harassing seminarians, whereas Law is not accused of sexual abuse but of mishandling allegations against others.

''You're talking about two different situations,'' said Law's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne.

Paetz, 67, was trained in Rome at two prominent colleges and worked closely with Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. He was a member of John Paul II's household staff before the pontiff sent him back to Poland as bishop of Lomza in 1982. He was named archbishop of Poznan, his hometown, in 1996.

''This forces the Vatican at least to recognize that this is not a peculiar American problem, and is not an issue of modernity and liberalism and loose morals,'' said Jose Casanova, an associate professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research, who studies global Catholicism. ''Paetz is a product of Rome and an archbishop of Poland. These things are not supposed to happen.''

In a recognition of the growing scandal, an increasingly frail Pope John Paul II yesterday referred to the clergy sexual abuse crisis for the second time this Easter season. At a Holy Thursday Mass, the pope asked for prayers for ''our brothers who didn't meet their commitments that came with priestly ordination or who are going through a period of difficulty and crisis.''

Shortly after the Mass, Vatican officials confirmed that John Paul II had accepted Paetz's resignation. The pontiff is planning to visit Poland this summer.

The allegations against Paetz first became public on Feb. 23 when the national newspaper Rzeczpospolita ran a front-page story reporting that ''numerous'' clerics had accused the archbishop of sexual harassment two years ago. Fellow priests accused Paetz of paying night visits to the lodgings of seminarians, cuddling up to young clerics in public, and using an underground tunnel to pay unannounced visits to their dormitories.

By late 1999 and early 2000 the allegations against Paetz had become so frequent and intense that seminary officials intervened, with the rector, the Rev. Tadeusz Karkosz, prohibiting the archbishop from making unannounced visits to the seminary. Though Paetz denied the allegations, his subordinate priests still complained to the Vatican, which launched an investigation.

''The investigation was inconclusive, but at least cast doubts about the soundness of the archbishop's judgment in his contacts with these seminarians,'' said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, who said he was briefed on the issue. ''Obviously, if Paetz had the foursquare support of the papal household, he would not have resigned today.''

Speaking to a gathering of clerics in his diocese in western Poland, Paetz said he was resigning because ''to live and to develop, the church in Poznan needs unity and peace.''

''Not everyone understood my genuine openness and spontaneity toward people,'' Paetz said. ''There was a misinterpretation of my words and gestures.''

The scandal has roiled Poland and undermined the authority of one of the most trusted institutions in Polish society.

''This is an event that has the same kind of impact that the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party had on faithful communists,'' Slawomir Majman, a columnist for the English-language Warsaw Voice, wrote Sunday in reference to the Soviet Communist Party Congress that in 1956 revealed Joseph Stalin's crimes.

An enduring source of national pride and identity, the Catholic Church has given comfort to Poles throughout centuries of foreign occupation, and provided the bulwark and moral backbone to the country's underground opposition to communism.

Between 90 and 95 percent of Poland's 38.5 million citizens identify themselves as Roman Catholics and a good percentage of them are devout. Churches are often so packed for Sunday mass that many parishioners stand on the street to hear the service. Streets, squares, and boulevards across the country are named for Pope John Paul II, whose picture adorns many offices and who is almost universally revered as a national hero.

''With the possible exception of Ireland, this is the most Catholic nation in Europe, with the highest church attendance, and the church also has a very special position because of its role in the anti-communist movement,'' said Jan Kubik, associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Russian, Central and East European Studies at Rutgers University. ''Important hierarchs in big dioceses like Poznan hold very visible public positions, and Paetz was chosen one of the 10 most influential people in the region in February. He was tremendously well thought of and respected, and everybody is shocked.''

Paetz is not the first church prelate to quit over sexual abuse allegations. Most recently, Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell of West Palm Beach, Fla., resigned after admitting having sexually abused a seminarian more than 25 years ago. And in 1998, Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer resigned in response to allegations he had molested young boys.

Numerous other bishops have resigned over alleged sexual liaisons with adult men or women, and at least two bishops, in Wales and Australia, have resigned over mishandling allegations against other priests.

Paulson wrote from Boston and Whitmore from Prague. Wire service material was also used. Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A24 of the Boston Globe on 3/29/2002.
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