The Polish documentary Tylko Nie Mów Nikomu (“Tell No One”) was released on YouTube on May 11 and has been viewed more than 22 million times. Some of these will be from foreign or repeat viewers, but given that there are fewer than 40 million Poles, this makes the film an astonishing cultural phenomenon.

Tylko Nie Mów Nikomu is devoted to the grim subject of clerical abuse and the failings of the Polish Church in addressing it. The filmmakers, Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, interview victims and perpetrators of abuse, and explore how crimes have been denied, excused, and obscured.

The film is relentless and unsparing, and leaves the viewer shocked, outraged, and disgusted. One’s heart goes out to the victims, whose lives have been scarred by men they had been taught to respect if not revere.

As outraged as Polish viewers have been towards abusers, the consequences of their outrage towards those members of the Church who have enabled their abuse will be more significant. Often, accusations against priests have been ignored. Worse, clerical abusers have been shielded from justice and, the film alleges, allowed to continue their crimes. One pedophile is claimed to have abused children in Wrocław, and then, rather than facing dismissal and imprisonment, moved to Bydgoszcz where he found new victims.

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One poll, conducted after the release of the film, claimed that just 33 percent of Poles trust the Polish Church, which, if true, means their number has halved in a matter of years. Kler, a 2018 film that told a story of abuse, fornication, and alcoholism in the Church, was a cinematic sensation but at least it was fictional. Tylko Nie Mów Nikomu is about real events.

After the release of Kler, and the announcement of a study into the scale of clerical abuse, I wrote for the Catholic Herald that “appalling crimes will undoubtedly come to light,” and concluded: “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.”

The study was released, detailing hundreds of crimes, but its scope was limited and its publication was dogged by ham-handed qualifications. As the film observes, it contained no statistics on the number of crimes that were reported to the police by the Church. Clergy made unwise statements to journalists, meanwhile, such as when Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski said that clerical abusers should be forgiven because “When the Nazis fought with Jews, applying a ‘zero tolerance’ mentality, it resulted in the Holocaust….”

Of course, all Christians should believe that repentant sinners deserve forgiveness, so the archbishop was not wrong per se. But it was not the souls of clerical abusers that were in question; it was their right to continue working in the Church. Such overheated language on behalf of criminals, meanwhile, was desperately out of place. Anger and distrust continued to boil until, with Tylko Nie Mów Nikomu, it boiled over.

That these scandals will harm the Church is obvious to anyone, but subtle factors might compound the threat to its authority. Much of the esteem in which the Church is held in Poland is the result of its resistance to the communist state. Poles recall the show trial of the Krakow Curia, and the assassination of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, and, of course, their heroic Pope John Paul II. Tylko Nie Mów Nikomu does something to complicate this undeniably honorable tale. Franciszek Cybula, the chaplain of the hero of Solidarnosć, Lech Wałęsa, is confronted by a victim of his molestation, and tells him, disgracefully, that it had been a joke to appeal to a young man with “appetites.” Another clerical supporter of solidarity, Father Henryk Jankowski, has faced allegations as well and footage is shown of protesters dismantling a statue that had been erected in his honor. Even Pope John Paul faces accusations of being insufficiently responsive to controversies. This should do nothing to diminish the achievements of Catholics who struggled to end communism—and, indeed, both Cybula and Jankowski are believed to have spent at least some time as contacts for the secret police—but the prominence of some of the perpetrators will magnify the disillusionment of many Poles.

In one scene of the documentary, an interviewee mockingly predicts that bishops will address allegations with talk of original sin. A clip then shows a bishop doing exactly that. The interviewee’s contempt is based on the belief that this is an excuse for complacence, and, indeed, if it was meant as that, it would be inexcusable. It is fair to say, however, that child abuse is a universal scourge, and bedevils religious and secular institutions wherever adults and children come into contact. In past years, there have been major investigations into widespread sexual abuse among Orthodox Jewish communities, the Boy Scouts, and, as I wrote in these pages, Hollywood studios. Most abuse, meanwhile, is conducted by family members or family friends. Priests are men, with the same potential for depravity as other human beings, and while this means one should not give them exceptional trust where children are concerned, it also means one should not give them exceptional suspicion.

I am not a Catholic, but I do know that the claims of the Bible and the Christian philosophical tradition should be judged by their own merits and not the behavior of some of their earthly representatives. I understand that the likelihood of people doing the latter might encourage clerical defensiveness around this issue. Yet while priests will always have the potential to sin, there is nothing to stop the Church from becoming the most forceful, energetic, and judicious institution when it comes to battling that sin. If depraved instincts are ubiquitous, then the Church should become a model of resistance to those evils, and one hopes that Archbishop Polak’s unqualified acknowledgement that the Polish clergy must “fight to absolve the Church of the sin and crime of pedophilia” represents a stride in the right direction. People may not respect an institution if they do not think its teachings are upheld in its own ranks, and there may yet be victims yearning to be saved. It is not too late.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote to Archbishop Wojciech Polak.] 

Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.