Less than two years ago, the Charlottesville alt-right march and various other white nationalist rallies threw into renewed spotlight the racist aspects of the politics of commemoration in the United States. Communities across the country, from Baltimore to New Orleans, began to assess more openly and more critically the value of monuments in public places that placed leaders of a racist Confederacy on a pedestal. Opponents called for respect for tradition, while supporters of this new wave of reckoning with the past called out the “tradition” for what it was: racism in Sunday clothes.
Today, we are confronted with another wave of reckonings, this time about the criminal actions of sexual predators dressed in priestly virtue. The Catholic Church is finally asking its clergy to investigate their own complicity in perpetrating thousands of incidents of sexual abuse, most egregiously against children, but also, as was recently acknowledged, against nuns. This is not a new discovery. Not for the survivors. Not for their parents, many of them dead. Not for their spouses and children, who have been witnesses of life-long trauma. What is new is the apparent willingness of the church hierarchy to take action on a global scale, to ask hard questions, and to attempt to rebuild trust and faith with its followers.
While cardinals and bishops try to develop mechanisms for investigation and accountability, the lay public is having its own reckoning. In Poland, the city of Gdansk was the scene of such a performance.
At 3 a.m. on Thursday, February 21st, hours before the Vatican Summit on Sexual Abuse was scheduled to begin in Rome, a group of men walked to the square where a statue of a Solidarity hero, priest Henryk Jankowski, stood. They climbed on top of it, tied a rope around the statue, and pulled it down. One member of the team filmed the entire operation; the video shows children’s clothes being placed in the hands of the priest, including a pair of tiny blue briefs. At the end, the three men embraced, first with a manly pat on the back; then they just hugged. They found some solace in this symbolic gesture. And by doing so online, they called out to the world to listen to them. It is a mesmerizing short film; I have watched it over and over, trying to imagine what they must have been feeling. The video was presented to the Vatican hours later.
In its demand that history be corrected, this is a gesture that resembles the audacity of activists in North Carolina, Georgia, and other places in the American south who decided to tear down symbols of oppression, hatred, and racism. Yet important differences set apart the Polish movement to rethink figures heralded as heroes. First, the revelations against Henryk Jankowski are relatively recent and his direct victims are still alive. For almost a decade, they have had to see his statue, to remember his actions, and to relive their trauma as part of their daily experience of the city. The perpetrator himself passed away only 9 years ago, having roamed the streets of Gdansk regarded by many a hero, a leader, a model citizen. He created a wine label and was considering launching a signature cologne before he died. In short, a bona fide star. Second, while the Confederate regime and its subsequent supporters stood resolutely for an anti-democratic ideology of racism and slavery, Solidarity represents a democratic movement that sought to eliminate an autocratic regime. Jankowski became a hero of that movement because he stood up for the workers against the communist regime.
The three men who tore down the Jankowski monument were arrested the next day for their act of civil disobedience and moral defiance. The following day the statue was raised again. The people who restored it were local Solidarity leaders. And here lies the second distinctiveness of Poland’s reckoning with problematic monuments: The battle over the significance of Henryk Jankowski’s statue is a battle over the historical legacy of both the Catholic Church and the Solidarity movement in post-communist Poland. Because the two are so closely related, it is quite difficult to sort out the heroic from the abominable, or so it seems to some Poles.
Solidarity had become an unparalleled beacon of light and hope in the ugly late communist period. Members of Solidarity articulated their opposition on the basis of a superior set of moral values to those of the communist regime. By always wearing a pin that openly advertised his allegiance to the Catholic Church, Solidarity leader Lech Wałesa proclaimed that Catholicism was a foundational aspect of the movement’s ethos. When he spoke passionately to the Gdansk shipyard workers in August 1980, Wałesa had Jankowski next to him. Jankowski’s priestly authority extended to the Solidarity movement like a mantle of spiritual awakening and security. These were NOT criminals like the communist leaders bowing to Moscow. They were Polish patriots and good Christians.
How could someone like that also be a habitual sexual predator?
Jankowski’s image began to be tarnished as he became more open about his anti-Semitism, which he defended as a form of patriotism. In the Gdansk basilica where Jankowski preached, he displayed a sign reading “Jews killed Jesus Christ and the prophets and they also persecuted us.” The Church punished his excesses by removing him from the pulpit for a period of time. But he was never defrocked, nor did his open anti-Semitism lead to a full repudiation from the leadership of Solidarity.
And then came the allegations of sexual abuse. Jankowski was initially investigated during the 1990s, though little is known about the investigation, other than the accusations could not be proved. It is not surprising, since at that point networks of survivors were not as well developed as today; without corroboration from other victims, allegations remained a matter of who to believe: A priest and hero of the Solidarity movement or men who were coming forward decades after the supposed incidents? In 2010 Jankowski died and a private initiative committee, led by some who had been involved in the Solidarity movement, decided to raise money for a statue. They obtained the funds after both the anti-Semitic stance of the priest and his alleged sexual molestation of minors had become public.
While it is easy to imagine enough people wanting to donate money to someone they considered a hero, regardless of his proven racism and alleged pedophilia, there is the thornier question of how permission for this statue was granted. Paweł Bogdan Adamowicz, who was assassinated in January 2019, was then the Mayor of Gdansk. He was an independent, but claimed strong ties with Solidarity. He would have had to provide a good reason for rejecting the request, and didn’t. The statue went up. For almost a decade it has stood as a symbol of the connection between this priest, and by extension the Catholic Church, and the Solidarity movement.
In December 2018, an exposé of Jankowski’s alleged abuses going back to the 1970s was published in the Polish media. One former Solidarity leader, Adam Michnik, opened the pages of his very popular daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, to bring to the table the voices of abuse survivors. (Michnik, a liberal intellectual who spent years in prison under communism and played an important role in the roundtable talks that led to the downfall of communism, has himself been the target of attacks from conservative and anti-Semitic elements of the Church.) The exposé came after years of research by investigative journalists and action by abuse victims turned activists, among them Marek Lisinski. With the Catholic Church’s increased attention to incidents of sexual abuse, more people in Poland have felt empowered to speak out. They did so very vocally in October 2018, when a march that identified perpetrators brought to Warsaw painful symbols of the repeated abuses by the clergy. Participants placed baby shoes on the fences of three churches in the Polish capital, while a separate march in Gdansk converged on the site of the Jankowski statue and placed signs of protest on and around it. In December 2018 Gdansk Mayor Adamowicz joined the call to investigate father Jankowski’s alleged pedophile activities. A month later he was dead and his Deputy Mayor has called for things to remain calm and for the statue to stay where it is while the investigation continues.
Hundreds of survivors have come forward through Lisinski’s organization and other networks. This February, during the Vatican summit, Pope Francis kissed Lisinski’s hand when he appeared before the pontiff in representation of victims of sexual abuse. This symbolic gesture may actually reach the hearts of those who continue to treat Jankowski like a hero and his critics as criminals. Activists have demanded the Polish Catholic Church to remove its leadership who, activists state, had known about these abuses and hid them. It also may be that Solidarity will finally have its day of reckoning in regards to criminal activities by Church leaders who were important supporters and allies.
And so, just as I had finished writing this piece, on March 7th, 2019, the city of Gdansk began its journey towards re-evaluating the historical legacies of Jankowski’s activities. Mayor Aleksandra Dulkiewicz led the way by speaking before the city council meeting that day and stating that there was only “one possible solution” for dealing with the Jankowski scandal — taking the statue down. And so it happened. In addition, Jankowski was posthumously stripped of the title of “honorary citizen” of the city.
The time has also come for those of us who study the history of the communist period to reflect on the toxic cover-up that the Church and Solidarity undertook. Historians writing about Jankowski and more broadly the Catholic Church during the communist period in Poland have had very little, if anything, to say about this aspect. We need to start asking ourselves what sort of historical evidence is necessary for us to make mention of these alleged crimes, and to what extent our writing can shed light on, rather than obscure, the complex and sordid aspects of the anti-communist opposition in Poland.
Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. Her most recent books are The Century of Women. How Women Have Transformed the World since 1990 (Rowman and Littlefield 2018) and Birth of Democratic Citizenship. Women and Power in Modern Romania (Indiana University Press, 2018). She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.