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‘Anti-clerical’ weekly debuts

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When a glossy weekly makes its debut on Poland’s newsstands this month, it’s guaranteed to raise some eyebrows. Its 33-year-old editor, Roman Kotlinski, promises Fakty i Mity (Facts and Myths) will be “anti-clerical and full of scandals.”

That will be quite a calling card in this predominantly Catholic country.

When Kotlinski, a former priest, set up Poland’s first association for married ex-clergy 16 months ago, he said he intended to be a “thorn in the side of pope and church.”

Today, he admits he’s disappointed by the weak public response but is determined to save the church from its “doctrinal errors” and “accumulated evils.”

“The church here still has roots in the Middle Ages -- and if the hierarchy had their way, they’d gladly turn the clock back 500 years,” Kotlinski told NCR.

Ordained in 1993 in Poland’s central Lodz archdiocese, Kotlinski quit the priesthood just a few months later after obtaining “no response” to his complaints from the local curia.

He married a widow with a son, and the two later had a son. Meanwhile, he published his experiences in a book, I Was a Priest, which he says sold 120,000 copies. In November 1998, he announced he was forming an association -- “For Renewal of the Roman Catholic Church on behalf of People Harmed by Clergy.”

Kotlinski said he’d been deluged with letters from clergy with families, and from women seduced and abandoned by priests. He pledged to launch legal advice centers around the country “to show the church it faces major opposition.”

“The Polish church is ruled by money, self-obsession, the pursuit of power and property,” the ex-priest told gaping journalists.

“This is the first critical voice from the homeland of the pope which seeks to expose this evil and bring about deep reforms. We must find a new understanding of papal infallibility and tidy up the church’s senseless, undiscussable dogmas.”

Though often criticized for conservatism and closeness to politics, the Polish church had rarely faced public dissent of this order. Its reaction was swift.

The Catholic Information Agency, KAI, said Kotlinski had “betrayed confessional secrets” and been forced to leave the priesthood after fathering a child.

Meanwhile, his factual claims were branded “lying and resentful” by the Lodz archdiocese, which said it had “shown trust” by allowing Kotlinski to be ordained after he was expelled from a seminary in neighboring Wloclawek.

“A careful observer will easily see how he paints his own portrait, and that his only motive is a desire to drown his own complexes and make money,” the statement added.

“It is the drama of a person who tries through aggression and untruthfulness to stifle his own guilt at his failed priesthood. It is a drama made greater by the fact that he spits on former colleagues and harms his own kin. This is how his children will one day see him.”

Kotlinski admits he’s dissatisfied that his association numbers only 200, and has been too dispersed around Poland to muster more than a single conference. But he’s proud that three married ex-priests have joined and is determined to battle on.

He estimates there could be 10,000 former priests of all ages in Poland (church officials strongly reject that estimate). While most of the country’s 30,000 active Catholic clergy live a life of wealth and privilege, he said, 10 percent are gays, and a quarter have extra-marital liaisons.

Among current cases, Kotlinski said he’s helping a Polish priest from London, Marek Sojkowski, sue the Wloclawek diocese for a house owned by his late father, who was also a priest. Kotlinski said he is also representing a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose child was bullied and humiliated by a priest at school.

Meanwhile, having made his international debut at a January meeting of the European Church on the Move Network, which he says devoted a whole day to his work, he’s gained pledges of “committed support” from the Netherlands and the United States. He also claims to have had expressions of interest from dissident figureheads such as liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng and progressive German theologian and psychotherapist Eugen Drewermann.

Kotlinski’s campaign comes at a sensitive time for the Catholic church in Poland, when efforts are continuing to adjust to the country’s radically changed post-communist conditions.

Though recruitment to women’s orders has slumped, there’s been no evidence of a fall in church attendance. The church’s clergy increased by 14 percent in the 1990s, and its 7,000 seminarians make up a quarter of Europe’s total. However, the church’s practical record has been challenged in areas ranging from women’s rights to anti-Semitism.

In 1999, a national synod, convened to implement Vatican II, warned priests to stay poor and steer clear of politics. It also called for “full transparency” in finances, and urged parishes and dioceses to obey Canon Law by handing greater responsibilities to laypeople.

Kotlinski dismisses the resulting talk of reforms as cosmetic.

He believes obligatory celibacy contradicts “nature and the gospel,” while abortion and contraception aren’t written about in the Bible and should not be “taboo subjects.”

“All they’re doing is powdering over the church’s ugly face to make it look friendlier and forestall a mass exodus. But the church doesn’t need renewing -- it needs total rebuilding,” Kotlinski said.

The Wloclawek diocese won’t discuss the case of Marek Sojkowski and says his court case would have been “dismissed long ago” if not for Kotlinski’s “bad will.”

Meanwhile, the Jesuit spokesman for Poland’s bishops’ conference, Fr. Adam Szulc, told NCR that Kotlinski’s salacious clergy statistics were “garbage,” and declined to voice any opinion about his activities.

Asked about the position of ex-priests in Poland, the head of the church’s concordat commission, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, said fellow-prelates tried to ensure that they maintained contact, but conceded most had refused “help or care,” creating a “serious problem.”

However, Kotlinski’s figure of 10,000 was merely “disorientating public opinion,” Pieronek said.

“Leaving the priesthood hasn’t been a mass occurrence here,” the bishop told the KAI agency. “At most, one can speak of 600 to 700 cases in the last 10 to 20 years, meaning an average of no more than 20 per diocese.”

Undeterred, Kotlinski insists he’ll press on. He’s now in a “vacuum,” he says, having given up practicing as a Catholic, and prefers to pray with those closest, “as Jesus taught us, in the quietness of home.”

“I can only hope to make a crack in the wall, while waiting for a new generation with freer thoughts and more open consciences to force the church to rebuild itself,” Kotlinski said.

“Perhaps when the pope is no longer around, the hardliners won’t be so powerful here. But while such stupid dogmas and rules exist, there’s really nothing to talk about.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000