WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish court has ordered church authorities to hand over to prosecutors classified files regarding a paedophilia case, in a rare example of a clash between the state and the powerful Catholic Church in deeply devout Poland.
The order came two days before the Vatican’s leading sexual abuse investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, was due to visit Poland to train senior clergy on how to tackle the problem, prompting hopes for greater empathy towards victims.
Church authorities in the city of Poznan had declined a request from prosecutors to hand over documents concerning the case of a priest accused of having sexually abused a boy 18 years ago, saying they had been sent to the Vatican.
“The court has upheld the decision of the prosecutors’ office ordering the Church to hand over documents during the course of the investigation,” said judge Joanna Ciesielska-Borowiec, who is also the spokeswoman for the court.
Prosecutors and activists welcomed the court decision.
“We think that the Church may have important evidence of the crime in its files, hence we are waiting for the diocese to execute the court’s decision,” said Michal Smetkowski, a spokesman for the Poznan prosecutors’ office.
“This is without precedent. I have never heard of a court ordering the Church to disclose files regarding paedophilia.”
Pope Francis has promised an “all-out battle” to root out paedophilia in the Catholic Church, which has seen its authority and reputation battered by sexual abuse scandals worldwide, from the United States and Chile to Ireland and Australia.
The Church has faced accusations of hushing up scandals and of moving known abusers from parish to parish.
“Such secrecy makes people think that bishops cover up the crimes...,” Adam Nowak, a lawyer representing the abuse victim in the case.
“On the one hand the Church declares that it is fighting paedophilia, and on the other this case... shows that it does not want to cooperate,” he said.
The Church in Poland, where 85 percent of people identify themselves as Catholic and where a third of the population attends mass every week, has yet to reach a consensus on how to address the sexual abuse issue.
Polish politics was upended during campaigning for the European Parliament elections last month by a widely viewed documentary on paedophilia in the Church, which is closely allied to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
PiS, a nationalist, socially conservative party, sees Catholicism as a key element of Polish identity, while Polish liberals say the Church wields too much power.
Priests have a high social status in Poland and Poles have sometimes preferred to believe those in the clergy accused of sexual abuse rather than their victims.
Reporting by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Gareth Jones