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A blockbuster Polish movie about abusive priests triggers a new wave of accusations

A promotional still photo from the Polish film "Kler." (Bartek Mrozowski/(Bartek Mrozowski/Kino Swiat))

WARSAW — In a country where nearly nine in 10 people identify as Catholic, a movie that’s sharply critical of the Catholic Church might seem like a hard sell. But a black comedy called “Kler” (Polish for “Clergy”) has become a blockbuster hit in Poland, drawing more than 4 million people to cinemas and becoming the third-most successful film here since the end of communism.

The movie follows three fictional Catholic priests, who are depicted as alcoholics, pedophiles and criminals protected by a powerful church hierarchy that considers itself above the law. “Kler” shows priests participating in drinking games and having sex with women. They commit fraud, silence opponents and have connections to far-right groups.

The film also deals with sexual abuse by priests, scenes that are based on testimony from real-life victims. Its release has prompted a new wave of victims to step forward.

“What’s so disturbing to me is how many more cases there are. And people are still being harmed today,” said Marek Lisinski, an abuse survivor who is now the head of Poland’s biggest victims' organization.

Scenes from the film are based on Lisinski’s accounts of being abused and attempting to seek justice. “To survivors like me, watching this movie feels like watching a documentary, because it’s so accurate in showing the powerful mechanisms that protect the Church,” he said. “Their influence is finally eroding now, we hope.”

More than 200 new accusations

Lisinski’s organization, called Do Not Fear, has received thousands of calls and letters since “Kler” premiered in late September. The group said it has heard from more potential victims in that time than it had in the past five years combined. Of those people, about 200 have made accusations the group deems credible and sufficiently detailed.

The movie also struck a chord among Poles in general. “I watched it because the church keeps saying that it’s blasphemy, and I wanted to judge myself,” said Jorek Hornowski as he left a cinema in central Warsaw. The 32-year old goes to church every Sunday but said the movie had not surprised him. “After all, it’s based on facts,” he said. “All of those allegations were known before. But I think this movie is forcing us to finally talk about it in public.”

“Some priests are abusing their authority, and we need to discuss it,” Hornowski said.

Wojciech Smarzowski, the film’s director, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that such discussion was exactly the point of the movie. “I wanted Catholic viewers to return to their parishes and to see [priests] as humans and not as saints,” he said.

With the ruling Law and Justice party openly strengthening its ties to the clergy, some liberal opposition members hope curbing the church’s powers will become a campaign issue during the next general election.

The church fights back

Supporters of the church have not taken the criticism without a fight: They called for a boycott of “Kler,” joined by some cinemas and a Catholic media organization, saying it is anti-Catholic. Members of the Law and Justice party have also lashed out at the filmmakers.

A representative for the Polish Catholic Church refused to directly respond to The Post’s questions about the movie, but he rejected the broader criticism about abuse that its release has raised. “New cases are routinely referred to our own investigations as well as to state prosecutors,” said Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, a spokesman for the Polish Bishops' Conference, who emphasized “bishops are extremely committed to preventing sexual abuse."

The church in Poland has commissioned a study to examine the extent of abuse by priests and updated its own internal rules, which it says are more expansive than Polish civil law. It also favors a national commission to address the sexual abuse of children, a move Do Not Fear also supports.

Other than that, however, there is little overlap between the demands of secular victims' groups and the church.

One key question is whether the Catholic Church itself can be blamed for complicity in sexual abuse. Although church representatives have said no, a Polish appeals court upheld a landmark ruling this month that ordered the church to pay more than $250,000 in compensation for an abuse case, possibly paving the way for similar verdicts amid the wave of new accusations.

“One of the reasons why many victims still come to us with their accusations and not to the Church is that their representatives refuse to acknowledge responsibility. The Church blames the individual priests, but not itself,” Lisinski said. Shortly afterward, he jumped up from his chair to take a call.

“This happens all the time,” said Agata Diduszko, a Warsaw city councilor, who was sitting next to Lisinski and has worked closely with him since the release of the movie. “Marek has this rule to always answer his phone when a new victim calls."

“If you don’t immediately respond to them,” said added, "they might never have the courage to call again.”

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