The fact that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla -- the future Pope John Paul II -- knew about abuse when he was an archbishop of Krakow, Poland, is neither new nor surprising, experts say.
What remains to be answered is what he knew, from whom he knew it, and how much of the cardinal’s decisions regarding abusive priests were influenced by the anti-church actions of the communist Security Service (SB), which often falsely accused good priests of immoral behavior only to discredit them.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978, the year he was elected pope.
The headline "John Paul II knew about the abuse when he was archbishop of Krakow" made waves in the media March 6, when the documentary "Franciszkanska 3" by Marcin Gutowski premiered on TVN24, a private commercial TV network in Poland. On March 8, the book "Maxima Culpa" by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek debuted, showing the same cases depicted in the documentary.
The cases, these authors claim, are "proof" that Cardinal Wojtyla, as archbishop of Krakow, "covered up" abuse. But for historians and experts in Poland, the situation is much more complicated.
The leading case depicted both in the documentary and in Overbeek's book centers on Father Boleslaw Sadus, a now-deceased priest of the Archdiocese of Krakow. The author of the documentary interviews a former employee of the curia in Krakow -- a priest -- who said that the curia "knew" Sadus had a "sexual deviation" that at the time was believed to be same-sex attraction. The film states that Cardinal Wojtyla transferred the abusive priest to Vienna, and the director reveals a letter from Cardinal Wojtyla to Cardinal Franz König, archbishop of Vienna at the time. The letter, as referenced in the film, omits any information regarding abuse and recommends Sadus as a candidate for university research in Austria.
"The case needs further investigation," Rafal Latka, professor of history at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynsk University in Warsaw, told OSV News.
The historian emphasized it is not known who told Cardinal Wojtyla about the actions of the priest and what exactly those actions were. The fact that journalists Gutowski and Overbeek used mostly archives produced by the communist Security Service doesn't give a full picture of the case, he pointed out.
"The answer to those questions," Latka said, "may lay in the church archives.
"The type of complaints about the priest should be in his personal file in the curia," he said. "If the curia in Krakow decided to open the archives to historians, we could investigate the reasons for the cardinal's decision."
In addition, "we could verify whether there was any more communications regarding that case," Latka said, adding it was improbable that at the time of communism, Cardinal Wojtyla would specifically point out in the letter to Cardinal König that a priest he was sending to him is in fact an abuser.
"The regime was checking the letters sent through the national post," he said.
Latka added that the church should decide on an independent commission to investigate the past, one that is “independent and lay-based." The idea of such a commission was first discussed three years ago at some levels of Polish hierarchy, but it never made it to the bishops’ conference.
"The responsibility of what we see today also lies on the Polish bishops," Latka said. "Had the commission been opened years ago, we would now have the full picture and we could explain these matters completely based on the confrontation of church sources and documents of the Security Service."
When interviewed for Gutowski's documentary, Thomas Doyle, a former Dominican and a longtime supporter of justice for sex abuse victims, applauded Gutowski, saying, "I think what you discovered is very important because it proves he (John Paul) knew this problem existed before he was pope. But there hasn't been proof."
However, the case of Father Sadus isn't new to Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, church historian and advocate of many victims striving to have their voices heard by the Polish hierarchy. In 2007, he published a book about priests who cooperated with communist Security Service. Father Sadus was one of them.
"Security Service blackmailed abusive priests and recruited them to be informers of the regime," Father Isakowicz-Zaleski told OSV News. Father Sadus, along with almost all cases of abusers with whom Cardinal Wojtyla dealt, was cooperating with the communist regime.
"I think the reason why Cardinal Wojtyla would react as he did in Sadus's case, was that he would easily believe people, which is not an accusation, this was simply his character," Father Isakowicz-Zaleski said, adding that "he was also acting as a merciful father. The only thing I can't understand is why he wouldn't take care of the victims, of those that were hurt."
And that again comes back to the question of what was the source of Cardinal Wojtyla's knowledge. Was it the victims' parents? Or was it gossip, which at the time of communism, historians agree, the church was cautious and reluctant to believe as gossip was used as one of the operational tools of the regime?
The times also were completely different not only regarding canon law, but also manners.
Danuta Rybicka, a member of the original and primary group of "Srodowisko," a group of young people Cardinal Wojtyla would call his "family," told OSV News a story of a different side of Cardinal Wojtyla -- one who punished abusive priests.
"We had a priest once in our parish. His name was Eugeniusz Surgent. We would often praise Father Surgent to Wujek, how good he is with youth ministry," recalled Rybicka, now 92, referring to Cardinal Wojtyla by his nickname, "Uncle."
"At some point, it must have been the beginning of the 1970s, Wujek came to our house, and to our enormous surprise said to us: 'The priest you told me so many good things about, I had to suspend.'"
Rybicka emphasized in a conversation with OSV News that "we now so openly debate such issues and at the time no one talked about it. I personally learned only years later what pedophilia is."
Father Surgent was another one of the abusers depicted in Gutowski's documentary. The reporter claims Cardinal Wojtyla relinquished responsibility for him, returning him back to his original bishop of Lubaczowska dioceses.
Tomasz Krzyzak of Rzeczpospolita, a Polish daily newspaper, investigated the case of Father Surgent back in December 2022, using the same archives as Gutowski. Krzyzak reported then that Cardinal Wojtyla expelled Father Surgent from the Archdiocese of Krakow and left the final decision regarding him to his bishop of the Lubaczowska Diocese.
"What Wojtyla did in the case of Father Surgent wasn't enough when we see it from the perspective of today -- but this case was at his desk at the beginning of '70s, and he did act in accordance with canon law at the time," Krzyzak told OSV News.
The third case shown in TVN's documentary -- the case of Father Józef Loranc -- also had been previously investigated by Krzyzak.
"However harsh the new documentary may be on Cardinal Wojtyla in this case, it is pretty clear to me. At the moment when Karol Wojtyla learned about abuse of little girls by Father Loranc, he immediately removed him from the parish, suspended (him) and, until the case was resolved, moved him to the convent," Krzyzak said.
There, in the convent, Father Loranc was arrested by the state police. He was released from prison in 1971. After his release, his case was further directed to the church tribunal.
"The church tribunal -- which was normal and in accordance with canon law at the time -- decided they are not going to further punish the priest because the state already did," Krzyzak said. "But Wojtyla never brought him back to ministry in the parish or school. Instead, after some years, the priest was appointed hospital chaplain."
Additionally, Cardinal Wojtyla wrote to Father Loranc in September 1971 about the church tribunal’s decision: "The abandonment of the punishment by the ecclesiastical tribunal neither cancels out the crime nor expiates the guilt. Every crime should be punished."
"With all due respect to those so tragically hurt by sexual abuse, of whom many I heard and of whom many are my friends," Krzyzak said, "we cannot judge those cases completely deprived from the historical context."
"We are today armed with knowledge, levels of empathy, we know what kind of scars sexual abuse leaves for the lifetime of the victim. At the time Wojtyla was archbishop, that knowledge was much, much lower, and still, we see Wojtyla acted," Krzyzak said.
"The approach of Karol Wojtyla to those cases was rather analogical to the approach of the majority of bishops and priests at the time," Tomasz Terlikowski, a Polish journalist who formerly led the investigative commission in the Dominican order, wrote in an editorial for the Deon online news site.
"Saints are people of their times," added Terlikowski, one of the experts interviewed in the documentary. "They are not excluded from the mistakes and they are not free from negligence of their own times."
"Cardinal Wojtyla and later Pope John Paul learned about those cases throughout his life, and this learning process is clearly visible not only throughout the cases we saw in the media, but also through his papacy," Father Piotr Studnicki, who heads the Child Protection Office of the Polish Episcopal Conference, told OSV News.
"Being a saint doesn't mean you don't make mistakes. A saint learns from mistakes. And clearly Wojtyla did," Father Studnicki said.