Illustration Ragni Svensson

Illustration Ragni Svensson

Essays Cross or Crossroads Will there be a 'quiet revolution' in Poland?

With the recent screening of a feature film and a documentary depicting corruption and sexual abuse by priests in Poland, issues that were previously taboo are now being aired in public. What effect, if any, will they have on the powerful position of the Church in Poland? This article looks first at how scandals have challenged the massive authority of the Church in another conservative and Catholic country, Ireland. It asks whether there are sufficient points of similarity between the two countries and their political predicaments for the Irish experience to act as a guide for the Polish situation.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 4-9
Published on on November 21, 2019

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First there was a fictional film, Clergy (Kler, 2018) and now a documentary film, Tell No One (Tylko nie mów nikomu, 2019) that directly confront a core and very sensitive relationship in Poland, that of the Catholic Church and the people.

The former film was a satirical comedy; the latter is a profoundly unsettling viewer experience, a clinical exposé that includes scenes of the abused confronting their abusers. It makes difficult, upsetting viewing. It was released directly on YouTube in May 2019 and had over 20 million views within weeks.

With the recent screenings depicting corruption and sexual abuse by priests in Poland, issues that were previously taboo are now being aired in public. What effect, if any, will these events have on the powerful position of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland?

In Canada, the “quiet revolution” took place over the course of the 1960s, a gradual process of secularization among Catholics in Quebec. A very powerful Catholic Church, which had a strong presence throughout all branches of society, little by little, lost its authority. Genevieve Zubrzycki has drawn comparisons between the French Canadian and Polish situations. 1 Local realities and political circumstances make each individual case different, but it might be possible to detect some commonalities between countries.

In Ireland, a similar process is still ongoing, but the authority of the Church has certainly taken much punishment over the past three decades. It is worth examining this situation to see if there might be some points of comparison with post-socialist Poland.

A dark, hidden history

The process in Ireland could be likened to an archaeological dig, with each layer revealing darker and darker experiences, long hidden from public view. Unearthing secrets and even — literally — actual corpses, became part of this downward journey.

Previously, there had been what seemed like isolated incidents, which showed that the conservative Catholic ethos of the country had a dark side. One such incident was the tragic story of Anne Lovett, a 15-year-old girl who died, having given birth to a stillborn son. But unlike later revelations, nothing eventuated; there was no individual to target and blame, no father was identified, and the victims were gone and silent. Silence surrounded the entire incident.

The first real scandals broke in the early 1990s. These were cases of high-profile clerics — in one instance a Bishop, Eamon Casey — being exposed as having broken his vows of celibacy and fathering children. Given the Church’s severe policing of sexual morality — uncompromising opposition to divorce, contraception or abortion — the hypocrisy was too much for many people to endure. A secondary set of revelations was much darker, involving exposure of the Magdalene Laundries. These laundries were typically run by orders of Catholic nuns, in which young women were confined, often for decades. The laundries had been in existence since the late 18th century, places where “fallen” women — the euphemism for women in prostitution — could be put to work in a spirit of Victorian morality, even in the late 20th century. Of course, not all women confined in these institutes had been involved in prostitution; some were sent for having become pregnant outside marriage (their children would be taken from them and given up for adoption), some merely for being exposed themselves to sexual abuses. One woman, Mary-Jo McDonagh, was sent by her family to be confined in a laundry for having been sexually abused by a neighbor. Because of this, a priest assured her, she, the victim, “had brought shame on her family”. 2

The ‘sinful’ women — they were referred to as ‘penitents’ — could somehow repent by washing the actual dirty linen of society. The overlap of the real and the symbolic is clear:

“One of Western femininity’s most enduring traits has been women’s responsibility for coordinating and managing dirt and disintegration, the association of women with polluting aspects of birth and death… In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women who had servants were perceived as purer, more feminine, more ladylike. The servant (and the servant class as a whole) absorbed dirt and lowliness into their own bodies.”3

The third layer of scandal did commensurably more damage to Church prestige. This was the increasing revelation of child abuse in Church-run institutions. Reports since commissioned revealed decades of abuse: beatings, hunger, humiliation and exploitation. Most damning, however, was the systematic and repeated sexual abuse of pupils. Furthermore, this was found to have been carried out by parish priests around the country; sometimes the behavior became known to Church superiors, whose (non)response was to move the offending priests to another parish, or sometimes another country, where, unsurprisingly, they typically re-offended.

Not only were children not being protected from individual predators, the Church was actually exposing more and more children to risk. The sense of betrayal was overwhelming: The most vulnerable children, some even orphans, were being abused by adults in a position of trust, with a duty of care.

A still-ongoing controversy in Ireland revolves around the discovery of children’s remains in the grounds of a Mother and Child home in Tuam, Galway. Investigations found that there were perhaps hundreds of infants in the grounds, who had never been given a proper burial — some were even placed in an old septic tank. Before his death in 2017, the disgraced Bishop Casey was facing allegations of child sexual offences. 4 After his death, his own niece alleged she had suffered years of sexual abuse by him, which began when she was five years old. The revelations of abuse by members of the Church continue, deeper and darker.

In sum, the Church’s authority was hugely diminished; religious attendance declined dramatically, from 90% in the late 1970s to 35% now, but with some urban parishes reporting attendance of less than 2%. 5

Furthermore, young men can no longer be attracted to join the clergy, and many priests are now of non-Irish origin. The most notable of these countries of origin is Poland (Poles make up the largest foreign group in Ireland).

Theoreticians of institutional change speak about ‘exogenous shocks’ that may prompt internal change or reform of an institution. 6 Will the process of revelation of abuse, which has recently begun in Poland, have a comparable effect in that country?

‘An autocracy of clergy, not a democracy of believers’

It must be said, however, that few institutions are more resistant to reform than the Roman Catholic Church. And perhaps even more so, the Polish branch of the Church. Although the Roman Church is universal in aspiration, it is experienced as deeply national among Polish believers. 7 The Church was treated brutally by the Nazis and severely constrained under the Communists. It was seen to be on the side of the people, something not easily forgotten. Modern Polish national heroes had a strong Catholic ethos — Witold Pilecki and Lech Wałęsa, as well as clerical figures like Father Jerzy Popiełuszko and John Paul II.

Nothing perhaps demonstrates this identification of Church with nation more clearly than the movement to have Jesus officially crowned King of Poland (as the Virgin Mary was crowned Queen of Poland in the 17th Century). This finally took place in Krakow in November 2016. The official status of the ceremony — and the claim it makes — are uncertain and confusing, but the emotional status, if we can call it that, is clear. President Andrzej Duda attended the ceremony.

What was this if not an implicit state blessing? So not only is there an alignment of people with Church, but also of state with Church. Disentangling religion and politics, if they have been allowed to tangle, is very difficult. As Anna Grzymala-Busse memorably puts it:

“…religion influences politics whether or not mass publics want it to. There is no relationship between the demand for the influence of religion on politics and its supply.” She goes on to make a further point: “Politicians, meanwhile, are uncertain of electoral preferences, and worry about offending a powerful societal actor. As a result, once the churches frame issues as moral imperatives, politicians tend to comply. Second, fusion between religion and national identity increases the likelihood of direct church access to policy making.” 9

So, at least under the present regime in Poland, led by the Law and Justice Party, there is a holy alliance of nation, Church and government. This leaves the Church is a very powerful position. But does that mean equally that the clergy, now being exposed as flawed, even in some cases criminal, are in as powerful a position?

Researchers such as anthropologist Juraj Buzalka have pointed out that many people in Poland traditionally had real doubts about the behavior of individual priests, but they still remain attached to the Church as an institution. He speaks of the ambiguity of believers, of which anti-clericalism is the most notable aspect: in particular, people feel that the clergy always benefit financially. 10 Yet this stops short of any challenge to the Church as an institution, a very hierarchical one. As one of Buzalka’s respondents put it memorably, it is “an autocracy of clergy, not a democracy of believers.” 11

Other observers point out that the Church in Poland does show internal division, on open versus closed church. The more conservative wing is associated with Radio Maryja and its founder Father Tadeusz Rydzyk. Speaking very generally, this wing is suspicious of outside influence, even Western European influence, which is seen as too secular. Zubrzycki speaks of the “folk piety” aspect of belief, and Buzalka of “post-peasant populism” and both these phrases are worth bearing in mind.

However, the Church remains a very powerful institution by any measure. With the post-1989 change of system, a lot of previously nationalized Church property in Poland was returned to the Church, which is now the largest landowner in the country. And there is indeed a complementary economic factor; as observers such as David Ost have pointed out, workers (and farmers) have lost out badly in that transition to a market economy. The fallout should be measured in human, not economic, terms:

“… by the late 1990s the typical Polish suicide victim was not a teenager in an existential crisis but a married man in his early forties living in one of the myriad small towns and villages where state firms and farm bankruptcies combined with the collapse of the old welfare state to produce a particularly searing kind of despair …” 12

One might argue that it is these left-behind people who are most likely to cling to the Church. Additionally, when identity is at stake, people often take up defensive positions; Polish conservatives seemingly understand this well, and prominent conservatives have stated quite explicitly that to criticize the Church is to insult Poland.

Will the Church scandals be enough to bring about social change? Helsinki-based media and communications researcher Kinga Polynczuk-Alenius is doubtful, given the powerful position of the Church across Polish society: “because we have something called the ‘Concordat of 1993’, which invests the Catholic Church in Poland with enormous privilege, as well as political and social influence. As long as the symbiotic relationship between political power and religious institutions continues, we will not witness any major change.” 13 She continues:

“That being said, I really want to believe that a social change is slowly simmering as certain segments of the population become sick and tired of the Church’s grip on all non-religious matters. All in all, I think that only a true separation of religion from the state can cause any real damage to the Catholic Church in Poland. Everything else will be managed as a PR crisis and used/re-appropriated to reinforce the Church’s (self-)image as an innocent victim of vitriolic leftist propaganda.” 14

But given the huge impact of Tell No One, one wonders whether this can be managed as just a PR crisis. For Alicja Curjanovic, a Warsaw-based researcher, there might be major change:

“After these films it’s impossible to claim that paedophilia is a problem confined to Western countries. For the first time, the Church had to really confront the issue. The effect would have been even bigger if there had been a different government. The present government has obviously made an effort to redirect people’s attention and promote the narrative that it is a political attack, and not a deep pathology within the Polish Church.” 15

The role of film, both fictional and documentary, can be crucial because of its capacity to effect the public view. The film as a media still retains extraordinary power to engage and enlighten people. In this, it far surpasses “reality” television and many aspects of social media.

A 1996 documentary, Dear Daughter, brought to general public awareness the cruelty of Irish industrial schools. Other documentaries that were influential in changing attitudes included the BBC’s Suing the Pope (2002) and Channel 4’s Sex in a Cold Climate (1997). The latter influenced the feature film The Magdalene Sisters (2002), which helped to bring Ireland’s Church scandals to an international audience.

The effect of these documentaries was to raise awareness of the culture of abuse and, through this, put public pressure on the government to create commissions to investigate the issue. This has happened, leading to the landmark Ferns Report (2005) and Ryan Report (2009).

There are movements in this direction in Poland, initiated by the Fundacja ‘Nie Lękajcie Się’ (Have no Fear Foundation), a support group for victims of clerical sexual abuse that was established in Warsaw in 2013. The effect of the screening of Tell No One was huge. Anna Frankowska, a lawyer and board member of Have no Fear states that, “Following the documentary, the foundation was literally flooded with calls. The documentary, which had more than twenty million views in just a few weeks, has had a big impact on survivors, who felt compelled to call us and share their stories.” 16

Frankowska is very aware of processes in other jurisdictions, including Ireland. Her foundation is willing to learn from the legal shortcomings of that country. “We understand that in Ireland, the Irish taxpayer had to pay the Commission’s costs and any compensation, but without knowing who exactly was to blame, and without prosecutions for what were clearly criminal acts or omissions.” The aim of Have no Fear is to establish a ‘truth and compensation commission’ to “investigate cases of sexual abuse of minors…ensure that paedophiles are prosecuted…ensure that there is no “indemnity deal” that would provide symbolic compensation in return for a waiver of further claims against the Church.” 17 A report they drafted seemed grimly similar to the Irish situation: multiple cases of sexual abuse by priests, which were known about but ignored or covered up by their bishops. A letter addressing the abuses had previously been delivered by Have no Fear to the Primate of Poland, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, but no response was forthcoming. The report has since been delivered to the Vatican, addressed to Pope Francis in person.


In making any comparison between Ireland and Poland, one must look at other social, political, and economic factors that have been part of Ireland’s move towards secularization. Ireland obviously did not have a post-communist legacy to deal with. Poland, likewise, did not have institutions such as industrial schools or Magdalene Laundries.

One such factor was the conflict in Northern Ireland, which began exactly 50 years ago, but was resolved in the late 1990s. (Even that resolution was draped in religious language, i.e., the Good Friday Agreement.) The other factors included systemic economic problems, which were considerably helped by EU (then EC) membership, plus very favorable terms for foreign investment. The economic boom of the 1990s, the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, turned a sharp corner on decades of unemployment and underdevelopment.

It may be precisely the economic boom that was decisive in the value shift away from the Church. The country has now experienced levels of wealth and comfort without precedent (despite the property crash and an EU-level bailout process). I would argue that wealth, somewhat disappointingly, appears to feed cultural confidence like nothing else. Aspects of the Catholic emotional landscape, if one can call it that, those that centre on penitence, self-sacrifice, even martyrdom, have more immediate appeal to people in situations of political oppression and economic hardship. When external factors change for the better, the landscape can alter as people’s aspirations, life choices and values change. I believe that this was an important factor in Ireland’s secularization and that it reinforced the split between people and Church that was caused by the various scandals.

Poland has been an EU success story, and its economy has steadily recovered from decades of communist underdevelopment and mismanagement. Some commentators even suggest it is currently undergoing a fiscal ‘golden age’, based on growth rates and other economic indicators. 18 As the seventh largest economy and — after Brexit — the fifth largest population in the EU, Poland will have an increasingly influential future within the EU. One hopes that this will offer a broader sense to identity than the narrow Polak katolik one, and a corresponding cultural confidence. But a painful aspect of its recent past must be addressed. Thanks to the courage of those willing to speak out about their abuse by the clergy, this process has started. The absurdity of ecclesiastical celibacy seems to revealed by the repeated pattern of sexual abuse in the Church – which had also caused scandal in Canada, the US, Australia, and elsewhere. But will this lead to a change?

Pope Francis is a humane figure, and — by Papal standards at least — liberal. If one reads the signs correctly, he does seem willing to consider allowing married men to be ordained (in some regions of his native Latin America). So there might be grounds for (very cautious) optimism on this issue in the future.

Meanwhile, however, the Polish Church must account for itself; if it fails to do so, it may risk losing its faithful. ≈


  1. See Zubrzycki’s lecture at, as well has her book, Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion and Secularism in Quebec, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  2. Fiachra Gibbons, “In God’s Name” (accessed 18 August, 2019) available at:
  3. Leonore Davidoff, Worlds Between, Historical Perspectives of Gender and Class, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995), 5 (emphasis added).
  4. No formal charges were brought, but compensation was paid to two victims. This legal grey zone has been a notable feature of the process – the Ryan Report was blocked by the Christian Brothers, the order accused of the most offences, from publishing the names of individual offenders.
  5. Gladys Ganiel, “After Francis: what’s the future for the church in Ireland?” (accessed 20 August, 2019) available at:
  6. See, for example, Mahony and Thelen (eds.), Explaining institutional change: ambiguity, agency, and power (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  7. An actual Polish Catholic Church (Kościół Polskokatolicki w Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) does exist, but it is a breakaway institution with few members.
  8. Anna Grzymala-Busse, ‘Historical Roots of Religious Influence on Postcommunist Democratic Politics’, in Mark Beissinger and Stephen Krotkin (eds.), Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  9.  Ibid.
  10. Juraj Buzalka , Nation and Religion, The Politics of Commemorations in South-east Poland (LIT Verlag Münster, 2008).
  11. Ibid., 116.
  12. David Ost, The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe (New York, Cornell University Press, 2005).
  13. Email to author, July 22, 2019.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Email to author, July 16, 2019.
  16. Email to author, August 20, 2019.
  17. Ibid.
  18. See, for example, “How Poland’s ‘golden age’ of economic growth is going unreported” by Eglé Fredriksson, Euronews, available at



  • by Brendan Humphreys

    PhD in Political Science and a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute – Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies and the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies (Urbaria).

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