WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Activists in Poland pulled down a statue of a priest early Thursday after increasing allegations that he sexually abused minors, a stunt they said was to protest the failure of the Polish Catholic Church to resolve the problem of clergy sex abuse.
The protest comes as Pope Francis gathered church leaders from around the world at the Vatican to grapple with the church’s sex abuse crisis.
Video footage showed three men attaching a rope around the statue of the late Monsignor Henryk Jankowski in the northern city of Gdansk and then pulling it down to the ground under the cover of darkness. The activists then placed children’s underwear in one of the statue’s hands and a small white laced church vestment worn by altar boys on the statue’s body to symbolize the suffering of children molested by the prelate.
It was a striking act in a country where more than 90 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and where the church still enjoys significant authority in public life. That position appears to be changing as secularization grows hand-in-hand with a flourishing economy.
Church leaders are also alienating Poles critical of its close ties to the conservative ruling party, accused by many of being anti-democratic.
Police said that the three men were arrested and that an investigation has been opened into whether they committed the crime of “insulting a monument,” which can carry the punishment of either a fine or imprisonment.
Jankowski, who died in 2010, rose to prominence in the 1980s through his support for the pro-democracy Solidarity movement and its leader, Lech Walesa, in their struggle against Poland’s communist regime. World leaders including President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited his St. Brygida church in recognition of his anti-communist activity.
But in recent months, allegations have surfaced that Jankowski abused minors, mostly boys.
In a manifesto, the activists said they were acting to protest a failure by church leaders to fully investigate the Jankowski case and take steps to make future sex abuse less likely.
“We accuse the institutions of the Catholic church and its representatives, who with full consciousness of the evil done by Henryk Jankowski, failed to act to put an end to evil, remained silent or — like (Gdansk Archbishop) Slawoj Leszek Glodz — tolerated the risk of there being more victims,” they wrote.
The activists cushioned the fall of the statue, explaining that their goal was not to physically destroy the monument but rather to upend “the false and hideous myth” of the priest.
By morning, authorities had cordoned off the area and covered the statue.
City authorities said they will not return the monument to its place, but will put it in storage. An official said the base was damaged and that it would not be safe to re-erect, resolving a dilemma around whether the statue should be removed, as some had called for.
The Polish Bishops’ Conference released a statement Thursday which did not mention the action, but which vowed “zero tolerance” of pedophilia. It said it has been working for 10 years to fight the problem of clergy abuse.
“The Catholic Church is the most advanced institution in this field in our country,” it said.