A Polish Catholic official defended the church's record in tackling sexual abuse by priests, after the head of the State Commission on Pedophilia complained it was refused access to clerical files.
"This commission's rights and competences, as established by law, do not include access to church documents -- under current procedures, it must request this from the Holy See," said Father Piotr Studnicki, director of the Polish bishops' Child and Youth Protection Office.
"When we've been asked to supply documents, we've asked about the legal basis for this, since every state institution must act according to law -- and they haven't been able to cite any. Perhaps things will change if the law is updated and extended. But for now, the commission has no right of access -- and I believe its members are aware of this."
The state commission was established in 2019 to investigate abuse of children under age 15.
Presenting the State Commission on Pedophilia second annual report at an Aug. 2 news conference, chairman Blazej Kmieczak said Catholic clergy had made up the largest group of abusers, after family members, in 318 new cases studied since July 2021, with other charges leveled at teachers, caregivers, doctors and sports trainers.
However, he added that investigations had been hampered by the church's obligation to hand over abuse documents to the Vatican, as well as by canon law requirements that files on completed cases should be destroyed after 10 years.
"The Catholic Church is doing a lot in terms of treatment and prevention. But when it comes to accessing documents, an incomprehensible barrier still remains," Kmieczak said.
Father Studnicki told Catholic News Service Aug. 9 it had been "clearly explained" that all past files on abuse by clergy were now lodged with the Vatican's Secretariat of State, which also directly handled requests for access from Polish civil courts and investigators.
"We're ready to cooperate with the state commission wherever possible, such as in statistical research and promoting understanding of the harm caused to victims," the priest told CNS.
"But decisions on access to files are reserved for the Vatican, not the Catholic Church in Poland. Poland's bishops cannot act outside or against Vatican rules -- we have to abide by instructions."
Father Studnicki said the Polish church was obliged under Canon 489 to destroy documents that did not need re-examining after the death or "unequivocal conviction" of an accused priest. He said if a case was just beginning and had not been passed on to the Vatican, "then a bishop can make the files available to courts and prosecutors."
"From the moment a case has been reported to the Holy See, however, it's no longer just a matter for local bishops, and officials must request access from the Vatican. From a legal standpoint, they're then dealing de facto with another state under international law."
Poland's Catholic Information Agency, KAI, took issue with the state commission's statistics. It reported the Interior Ministry had confirmed that Catholic clergy made up just five of the 1,756 people currently jailed for sexual abuse.
"From the state commission's data, much of the media concluded that clergy constituted the second-largest milieu where sexual crimes against minors are committed," KAI said in an Aug. 5 report. "This thesis is completely illegitimate, because the commission's report only provided information about cases reported to it."
Father Studnicki told CNS the commission should be commended for "tackling sexual abuse systematically" at a time of continuing "resistance and defense mechanisms."
However, he added that it had been hurriedly set up under social pressure, after high-profile TV documentaries on clerical abuse, and "given certain tasks but not the legal capacity to carry them out."
Ten Catholic bishops and archbishops -- most of whom have retired -- have faced sanctions for ignoring abuse complaints in Poland, where the church appointed a child protection coordinator in 2013 and has since ensured all dioceses and religious orders have child protection specialists.
Father Studnicki said demands were growing in Poland for a church-appointed independent commission to investigate the historic handling of abuse claims.
"This wouldn't mean copying what's been done in the U.S., Germany and France, but looking at how they conducted their research and at their experiences in studying the past," the priest told CNS.
"It would mean reckoning with the past, but more importantly drawing lessons for the future. I think there's a mounting social expectation for this, if the bishops agree."
A September 2021 report from a lay-led inquiry commissioned by the church on sexual abuse in Poland's large Dominican order confirmed widespread cover-ups.