OZNAN, Poland, March 21 Here in western Poland, in what residents boast is the oldest diocese of a fervently Roman Catholic country, it was the priests who reported the many whispers of homosexual advances by the local archbishop and the priests who got the Vatican to take some action.
In the United States, action against priests accused of sexual molestation has been a result of lawsuits by parents, family members or the victims themselves. In Europe, and particularly in countries as conservative as Poland, such scandals have been handled more discreetly.
But by late 1999, the rumors that Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan had made advances on teenage seminarians had become so intense that the director of the seminary confronted the archbishop, who denied the reports. In 2000 a respected local layman from the diocese drew the same response from the archbishop.
So the priests decided to act.
Their action led not only to a Vatican investigation but also to detailed publication of the charges in a generally cautious Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, which departed from its usual political and economic news on a February weekend to emblazon the story on its front page.
Last year a sizable number of priests of Poznan wrote to the Vatican, which apparently without informing the Polish pope, John Paul II asked the papal nuncio in Poland, Bishop Jozef Kowalczyk, to investigate the accusations. (Last year, Archbishop Paetz removed the publisher of the diocesan magazine, the Rev. Jacek Stepczak, after he refused to print a letter signed by priests who support the archbishop.)
In May four affidavits signed by seminarians and detailing the archbishop's behavior were sent to the nuncio, who forwarded them to Archbishop Paetz with a recommendation that the matter be forgotten, according to journalists who saw copies of the document.
Further letters by leading priests and laymen to Polish bishops followed, to no effect, so a personal messenger whose identity no one in Poznan, Warsaw or Rome will disclose was finally dispatched to Pope John Paul.
In November two Vatican emissaries arrived in Poznan to question dozens of priests and seminarians, many of whom confirmed the reports, church officials familiar with the mission said.
The Rev. Adam Schulz, spokesman for the Polish bishops, said a Vatican decision was expected soon, though he would not disclose its nature. Until then, he said, the bishops urged silence.
When Archbishop Paetz, who is 67, became archbishop of this grimy industrial city in 1996, it seemed like a crown on a fruitful career. The archbishop had studied at papal universities in Rome, held a prestigious position at the Vatican and been bishop of a diocese in eastern Poland. Poznan was a homecoming; his family had migrated here from southern Germany in the 17th century, like many settlers to what was once a mixed German-Polish region.
Now the local church is deeply torn, and Polish Catholics are dismayed by the first case in which such a high-ranking cleric has been accused of sexually abusing teenagers. To date, Poles have read of such priests abroad, most notably in the United States, or heard of lower-ranking priests at home accused of fathering children or sexually abusing youngsters.
The Polish church remains highly authoritarian, with a hierarchical order that culminates in the Vatican. No victims of sexual abuse have sought legal regress or until the Rzeczpospolita article, which masked identities while giving shocking details spoken publicly about their suffering.
Rzeczpospolita quoted a father of a seminarian as describing his distraught son coming home and telling his parents, "I did not know our archbishop was a homosexual." The paper said the boy ultimately left the seminary to finish his studies for the priesthood abroad. Another cleric from the seminary described how Archbishop Paetz touched seminarians to test their willingness to be approached.
One priest told the paper that the archbishop warmly embraced him with a big kiss. He later called the archbishop, he said, to tell him he was cutting short his studies at the Poznan seminary.
After a fruitless meeting with the archbishop in late 1999, the seminary rector, the Rev. Tadeusz Karkosz, barred the archbishop from entering the seminary without a prior announcement. "I'm only interested in the good of the boys under my care," Father Karkosz told Rzeczpospolita. He refused to be interviewed for this article, as did seminarians and their intermediaries.
The archbishop has steadfastly denied all accusations that he acted inappropriately with seminarians, some of whom are as young as 18. In a letter he ordered read in churches on March 17, he accused the news media of "an unprecedented, massive and one-sided campaign against my person."
While he was deprived of the right to anonymity, he said, "indiscriminate and mendacious attacks and accusations on the part of a few have loosed an avalanche of accusations and rumors, without family names or Christian names or faces behind them."
Some pastors refused to read the letter, though they are unwilling to discuss why, saying they fear retribution. Local journalists fear that the attack on the media means that Archbishop Paetz could be dismissed, but present himself as a victim of media rancor.
Wlodzimierz Bogaczyk, the bureau chief in Poznan for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest newspaper, said: "We see a real shift. What is said is that it's not certain whether the archbishop is guilty, but it is certain that the media are guilty."
Many here believe a solution will be found that will permit the archbishop to avoid not only disgrace but even prosecution. For example, a compromise could redraw diocesan boundaries to make his retirement appear to be a consequence of reorganization rather than of reprehensible behavior.
Indeed, Vatican officials familiar with the case say that evidence of homosexual activity appears to be lacking, and that Archbishop Paetz will most likely only be chided for injudicious words and actions to seminarians.
Marek Ziolkowski, a sociologist at Poznan University who studies Poles' religious behavior, said the slowness of the official reaction and the silence were not surprising because action could come only from John Paul. "Some thought, `We do not want to bother the czar,' " he said, referring playfully to the pope. "They felt disclosure would be linked with enormous pain" for John Paul, who is 81 and visibly infirm. "It was about sparing him the pain."
But the silence, some say, came at the price of a fear more familiar during Communism, when the Polish church was a rallying point of national identity and played a part in toppling the system.
A parish priest who refused to read the archbishop's letter from the pulpit on March 17 also declined to comment for this article, saying he had been threatened with transfer. An employee of a diocesan organization, also seeking anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his job, noted how the silence recalled Communist times, "when people could not talk publicly for fear of the consequences."
Professor Ziolkowski noted that in general, Poles tend not to play up the misdeeds of individual bishops, believing as they do in the permanence of the Roman Catholic Church.
By way of illustration, he paraphrased words of the 19th-century Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz that have become a common adage: "The monastery will long outlive the abbot."