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Polish prelate accused of sexual abuse


While the sexual abuse crisis in the American church continues to widen, a less heralded case in Poland threatens to lay questions about the oversight of potential abusers directly at the feet of John Paul II himself.

Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, 67, of Poznan, Poland, has been accused of sexually molesting seminarians at his diocesan seminary. Vatican sources tell NCR that the case has alarmed the pope’s inner circle, in part because Paetz spent more than a decade in the Vatican, including four years working in Karol Wojtyla’s papal household.

The current charges against Paetz arise from the period since he became archbishop. If it should turn out, however, that concerns about his behavior date back considerably earlier, it could raise potentially explosive doubts about John Paul’s judgment in promoting him to the episcopacy and promoting him again.

Paetz was a “prelate of the ante-camera” from 1976 to 1982, meaning a cleric in service to the papal household, the last four years under John Paul II. His function was ceremonial, requiring him to greet dignitaries at the papal apartment and show them into meetings with the pope.

After Paetz and his fellow prelate of the ante-camera were made bishops in 1982 and given other assignments, the office was formally abolished.

Prior to entering the papal household, Paetz worked in Rome in the Synod of Bishops from 1967 to 1976. After his Vatican service, he was named bishop of Lomza, Poland, by John Paul in 1982. The pope then made him archbishop of Poznan in 1996.

During his time in Rome, sources told NCR, Paetz was a protégé of Polish Cardinal Wladyslaw Rubin. As one of only a handful of Polish prelates in the Vatican prior to the election of Karol Wojtyla in 1978, sources say Paetz had an automatic rapport with the new Polish pope.

The charges of sexual molestation against Paetz came to public attention after a Feb. 23-24 report in the respected Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. The rector of the Poznan seminary, according to the report, barred Paetz from visiting in the wake of these concerns.

Paetz has denied the charges, saying his “actions and words had been misinterpreted” and that he is the victim of a “broadly conceived and systematically conducted” smear campaign.

Sources in Rome close to Paetz and the investigation are divided, with some saying the charges appear well-founded. At least four seminarians are said to have given formal statements, describing instances in which Paetz allegedly tried to pressure them into sexual contacts.

“Among people in the know, it is taken for granted that he is guilty,” one source said.

Others, however, are unconvinced, suggesting the charges could be a publicity stunt intended to discredit the church.

On Feb. 22, 43 Polish intellectuals in Kraków and Warsaw signed a letter asking Paetz to step down until the situation is clarified.

The Rzeczpospolita report indicated that letters describing the charges against Paetz were directed in early 2000 to the pope’s private secretary, Polish Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, as well as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state.

In the end, according to the newspaper, it was 81-year-old Polish psychiatrist Wanda Póltawska, a longtime friend of John Paul II, who brought the matter to his attention.

According to Rzeczpospolita, a special commission came to Poznan from the Vatican at the end of November 2001 to carry out an investigation of Paetz. Two clergymen, members of a church tribunal, questioned more than 40 witnesses in all; according to unofficial sources, most of them confirmed the accusations.

Senior Polish bishops were set to arrive in Rome March 9, for a previously scheduled event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the restructuring of the Polish hierarchy. Vatican sources expect that Paetz will be the leading topic of discussion in behind-closed-doors meetings with the pope.

Paetz himself was not expected to attend.

Most sources in Rome expect that Paetz will face strong pressure to resign, though some supporters in Poznan are organizing a committee for his defense. Publicly, papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls on Feb. 24 said only that the Vatican is “following the topic with great attention and responsibility in order to safeguard the rights of all.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002