The Polish film Kler (“Clergy”) was controversial even before its release. Directed by Wojciech Smarzowski and featuring household names such as Robert Więckiewicz and Jacek Braciak, the film depicts priests struggling with vice and weakness amid a Church marked by corruption and hypocrisy.
A confrontation between the Polish Church and cultural industries was inevitable. Ida won an Oscar for its portrayal of dark chapters in the nation’s war history, but was condemned by some Poles as anti-Catholic. Kler is an explicit assault on the Church’s moral status in Poland, complete with alcoholism, fornication and child abuse. “It should be a shock,” Janusz Gajos, a veteran Polish actor who appears in the film, told TVN24. “We know of many incidents … which take place behind the Church’s curtains and whose perpetrators are then protected.”
Audiences have rushed to see the film. Almost a million Poles saw it on its opening weekend, giving Kler the most successful first three days in Polish cinemas of any film in 30 years. But Polish clerics and conservatives have been hostile.
Jarosław Sellin, of the ruling Law and Justice party, charged the film with peddling “negative stereotypes”. The right-wing Gazeta Polska replaced the four fictional priests on the film’s poster with Primate Stefan Wyszyński, Pope John Paul II, Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko and Fr Maximilian Kolbe to illustrate the struggles of the maligned Polish Church against “Nazism, Communism, LGBT and Islamists”. Even a more sympathetic review in Wiez observed “simplifications and exaggerations” in the film.
Still, the Wiez reviewer noted that the Church might be standing “at the gates of one of [its] biggest crises” as the wave of scandals that have rocked Catholicism in Ireland, Australia and the US reaches Central and Eastern Europe. “The only question,” he concluded, “is whether we are … ready.” Poland is a predominantly Catholic country but an ever growing interest in Western media and a series of clerical controversies have made Poles more receptive to criticism of religious institutions. Just last week, in Poznan, the Society of Christ Fathers was ordered to pay a million złotys (£200,000) to an abuse victim.
“There must be zero tolerance for the sins and crimes of paedophilia,” Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the Primate of Poland, has said. A study into the scale of paedophilia among priests has been commissioned; one hopes that it will be uncompromising.
In the US, over recent decades, many films have been released addressing child abuse in the Church. Catholics had just cause to denounce the hypocrisy of film-makers who never questioned the rampant abuse in their own industry, but protestations against Hollywood unfairness seemed hollow when the scale of the problem was exposed.
There is no evidence that the Polish Church contains corruption on a comparable level, but appalling crimes will undoubtedly come to light. If the Church can distinguish itself with the power and clarity of its response it can not only safeguard innocents but also affirm its role in society and resist the secularising cynicism of our age.