The Slatest

Polish Activists Topple Statue of Iconic Priest as Vatican Summit on Sex Abuse Begins

Lech Walesa and Henryk Jankowski address a large crowd of shipyard workers.
Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Father Henryk Jankowski address a crowd of striking workers at the Lenin shipyard on Aug. 14, 1988, in Gdansk. MAREK DRUSZCZ/Getty Images

Hours before Pope Francis convened a four-day sexual abuse prevention summit in Vatican on Thursday morning, Polish activists protesting molestation of minors by Catholic clergymen took matters into their own hands. Around 3 a.m., three men quietly toppled the statue of the legendary priest Father Henryk Jankowski in the northern city of Gdansk. They also placed children’s underwear and a white, lace altar boy garment on the statue to symbolize the suffering of children Jankowski allegedly molested.

Jankowski made history for his support of the anticommunist Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. He was close to the movement’s leader, Lech Walesa, who later became Poland’s first president. World leaders including George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher visited Jankowski’s church to honor his anticommunist activities. Jankowski was investigated in the 1990s on suspicion of child sexual abuse but not convicted. Long after his death in 2010, new allegations emerged. At the time, Walesa publicly defended Jankowski’s reputation.

The three Gdansk activists wanted to use his statue to call attention to the church’s failure to address clergy sexual abuse. Along with the statue’s toppling, they released a signed manifesto accusing clergy officials of “systemic complicity in the evil done to people by Henryk Jankowski.” The men intentionally kept the statue intact by cushioning its fall with tires. The goal was not to destroy the monument but to dismantle “the false and hideous myth” of Jankowski’s role in Polish society. AP reported that after discovering the toppled statue this morning, officials decided to keep it in storage rather than put it back up. However, some Poland-based users on Twitter are now claiming that the city will reinstall the statue, citing a local newspaper report. The activists may also face charges for “insulting a monument.”

The fall of Jankowski’s statue is not the first outburst of frustration against the Catholic Church in Poland. In October, more than 200 people took to the streets of Warsaw to protest the abuse of children by the Catholic clergy. The march was organized by a victims’ group that published an online map of documented cases in which minors were molested by clergy members across Poland. The map shows more than 250 known cases, three in Gdansk alone.

Pope Francis convened this week’s Vatican summit to educate the clergy on the importance of addressing abuse allegations and to consider proposals for punishing predators within the church. On the first day, Francis implored senior Catholic leaders to end the cycle of sexual abuse cover-up and put a stop to scandals that have rocked the church for decades. “The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established,” he said. Over the next four days, the clergy will consider Francis’ 21 proposals for fighting abuse in the church.

In anticipation of the summit, a Polish charity called Have No Fear, led by a victim of clerical abuse, delivered a report to the pope naming 24 bishops who allegedly concealed known abuses of minors. “We demand the opening of the archives of the Polish Church and provision to law enforcement authorities of all information about the offenders, because the Church cannot be above the law,” the organization wrote.

Such outspoken condemnations of the Catholic clergy in a country that’s over 90 percent Catholic underscores the necessity of this week’s sexual abuse prevention summit. Pope Francis is right: It will take more than empty statements of support from church leaders to rebuild trust among Catholics who’ve experienced or witnessed rampant clerical abuse and watched the church sweep it under the rug for decades.