Campaigning in Poland for the European elections has descended into a war of words over religion, sex and morality. This happened after a documentary on clerical abuse raised questions about the government’s ties to the Catholic church and the ruling party campaign sought to portray LGBT rights supporters as a threat to children.
The documentary that was released on youtube earlier this month has been viewed more than 20m times. It featured several victims confronting their sexual abusers. This further electrified what had already been a febrile debate over the role of the powerful Roman Catholic church in Polish politics and society, during which homosexuality has regularly been equated with paedophilia.
“In the last campaign, the big threat was Muslim migrants. At other times, the enemy is the Jews. Now it’s our turn,” said Piotr Godzisz of Lambda, an NGO that monitors hate crimes against Poland’s LGBT community.
LGBT rights and a perceived threat to traditional values have been front and centre of the campaign since it began in early March. Rafał Trzaskowski was recently elected liberal mayor of Warsaw. He unveiled a series of commitments to uphold minority rights and support sexual education for young people. Hence, making LGBT rights the centre of the campaign.
Kaczyński told Catholic Action, a lay group Promoting Catholic values, that LGBT rights and “gender theory” were an existential threat.
“These ideologies, philosophies, all of this is imported, these are not internal Polish mechanisms,” Poland’s most powerful political figure told the gathering in the central city of Włocławek. “They are a threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state.”
Tensions were high again earlier this month after Donald Tusk, the European Council president, attended an event at the University of Warsaw. The former Polish prime minister is expected to stand in next year’s presidential election after his term in Brussels ends.
Tusk, Kaczyński’s political arch-rival, gave an uncontroversial address calling for Polish society to reunite. However, it wasn’t the same for the speaker before him. The speaker before him accused the Catholic church of abandoning Christ’s teachings and forfeiting its moral authority.
The remarks were seized upon by PiS as proof that Tusk was plotting an attack on traditional values. Kaczyński told supporters at a “patriotic picnic” that “he who raises his hand against the church raises his hand against Poland.”.
The crowdfunded film documents several instances of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. It also documented the subsequent inaction or cover-ups on behalf of senior clergy. It features victims confronting their aggressors and describes a number of instances in which priests found to have sexually abused children are sent to places where they are entrusted with the care of minors.
With pressure building on the church hierarchy, some senior clerics have sought to distance themselves from the government. Last week, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, announced a compensation fund for victims of abuse, saying he “does not see any raised hand” against the church. He also criticized clergy who had openly endorsed PiS candidates.
The controversy has encouraged more radical voices to increase the homophobic rhetoric. Kaja Godek claimed gay people wanted to be able to adopt children “because they want to molest and rape them”.
However, surveys show a notable rise in tolerance and empathy towards the LGBT community. It also showed the emergence of a confident new generation of activists in smaller towns and cities.
But while many underlying trends are improving, the overall picture remains bleak, especially for teenagers. A University of Warsaw study last year found that more than two-thirds of people identifying as LGBTI had endured psychological or physical violence. Furthermore, 70% of teenagers identifying as LGBTI had had suicidal thoughts.
“We are resilient. As a movement, the hatred makes us stronger,” said Godzisz. “But for the most vulnerable people – it will kill them.”