WARSAW, Poland -- The leader of Poland's Catholic Church has come under a wave of condemnation by appearing to suggest that children are partly to blame for being sexually abused by priests.
Archbishop Jozef Michalik, head of Poland's influential Episcopate, was commenting this month on revelations about Polish pedophile priests. A child from a troubled family, Michalik told reporters, "seeks closeness with others and may get lost and may get the other person involved, too."
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The words triggered an immediate uproar -- one that Michalik tried to stamp out the same day by apologizing and saying he had been misunderstood. He had not, he said, meant to suggest that child victims were in any way responsible.
But the damage was done.
Ordinary citizens joined prominent politicians in expressing outrage, and intense debate continues more than two weeks later. The media pointed out that Michalik had supported a parish priest convicted in 2004 of child sex abuse, and one of the priest's victims said she was horrified by Michalik's latest remarks.
"Archbishop Michalik's words make us feel fear and revulsion," Ewa Orlowska said.
The archbishop's comments forced the Episcopate's spokesman, the Rev. Jozef Kloch, to state that Poland's church has "zero tolerance" for pedophilia but that it needs to learn how to approach and talk about the matter. The controversy has since led bishops under Michalik to apologize for "priests who have harmed children."
It all comes amid a tide of allegations that Poland's church is sweeping cases of sex abuse under the carpet, putting it at odds with Vatican efforts since 2001 to punish abusers. The scrutiny has also further undermined the church's status in Poland as a moral and political leader -- cemented by Polish-born Pope John Paul II through his critical role in inspiring the fight against communism. The church's defenders say that priests are being singled out for condemnation when teachers and sports coaches have also been caught sexually abusing kids.
John Paul himself came under criticism for a reluctance to heed accusations against priests. While the Vatican in 2001 ordered bishops to submit cases of alleged pedophilia to the Holy See's review, it was largely the initiative of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. After the church sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002 in the United States, Ratzinger pressed for faster ways to permanently remove abusers from the church.
The crackdown against pedophile priests gained intensity once Ratzinger became Benedict XVI. In 2011, Benedict instructed bishops' conferences around the world to submit their own guidelines for keeping molesters out of the priesthood and to protect children.
Poland's Episcopate has issued guidelines for the church's punishment of priests and support for the victims. But it sees no need to report priests to state investigators and says that the financial compensation rests with the wrongdoer, not with the church. That approach may soon be tested by a man who is readying Poland's first sex abuse lawsuit against the church.
In several countries, including the U.S., Canada and Australia, the church has been paying millions in compensation over sex abuse cases.
Michalik also recently raised eyebrows by saying that the roots of pedophilia lay in pornography and divorce, both of which are "painful and long-lasting wounds."
The debate started last month after Dominican Republic investigators revealed child sex abuse allegations against two Polish clergymen: Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the Vatican's ambassador, and Rev. Wojciech Gil, a parish priest. Wesolowski has been forcibly removed by the Vatican. Gil has denied sex abuse and suggested that Dominican drug mafia is taking revenge on him for his educational work.
Some 27 Polish priests have been tried for sex abuse since 2001, but most cases ended in suspended prison term -- indicating a general leniency for the church in Poland, where religion is taught in schools and senior church officials attend state ceremonies.