Interview with Paulina Guzik, Polish Journalist and Professor

Our visiting scholar, Paulina Guzik, is an award-winning journalist and a professor at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow.

Please introduce yourself and the project you are working on.

I am a multi-tasking mom of two, working both in academia and journalism. For eleven years now, I have been a lecturer and researcher at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, specializing in institutional communications and also teaching TV journalism. I am also an active journalist myself, working for Polish Television, the public channel, and I am the host of an hourlong Sunday program covering the Church in Poland and around the world. I write for Crux in Rome and Więź in Poland.

I came to the US to research best practices in Church communications about sexual abuse; need is the mother of invention, also for academic professors. Having always been very practical in my research topics (i.e. spending time on things that others can actually use), I decided that this is something the Church in Poland needs: guidelines on how to communicate during the crisis of sexual abuse. I decided to gather best practices and mistakes from Churches around Europe and in the United States so that we do what we rarely do in the Church: learn from the mistakes and good practices of one another.

Soon after I started, having in mind helping the Polish Church, I realized this is needed for the universal Church. The universal Church lacks strategy for communicating about sexual abuse.

The most dramatic example in the recent days was the French report:

A.) It leaked to the media before the Church had the chance to present it. And the public judgment was done.

B.) If the Church institution asks a commission to prepare a report, and then doesn’t know how to communicate the results, and in consequence the Church that showed the highest sign of transparency becomes a media scapegoat, something is dramatically wrong.

Not to mention that every other national Church, with the exception of those that have already done this, is now expected to release their own investigation of a similar kind.

Was there a global strategy of the Church to communicate about this? No. Should there be? Yes. And it should have been coordinated by the Vatican. It would save us much trouble.

Having said that, my research is not only for Poland, it is for the universal Church that needs a strategy for communicating the biggest crisis that hit our home in the 21st Century.

Why do you think there is such a lack of information out there for Church leaders about how to communicate about clerical sexual abuse?

Because we don’t think that communication is part of governance. Leaders, not only in the Church, tend to think that communication is only to be used when we want to say something in the media. And the media is only one of the stakeholders of institutions. Especially when difficult things come up, first and foremost, we need to take care of those who need us most (not the journalists) and communicate the solutions to the problems. Communicate our compassion and closeness with those who have been hurt.

Let’s think of victims of sexual abuse. When they learn about their cases from the media, they’re furious. The Church needs to communicate to them first, because they are the most vulnerable people hurt by this crisis. Then the faithful. They’re also hurt — by ignorance, lack of knowledge, or just by scandal. Media is important, of course, but until the Church understands that there needs to be a holistic strategy of communications, the media strategies are not going to work.

How has your experience as a journalist affected your view of the Church?

It’s an interesting question, especially a day after the Dominican provincial in Poland refused to answer my questions, arguing that I, “decided to become a spokesperson of the victims and the role of the spokesperson is irreconcilable with a role of a journalist.”

And what did I do to earn this rebuke? I wrote a human story on the victims of Polish Dominican father, Paweł M., in July. These victims were ignored by the order for twenty years. How could I not listen to them as a journalist?

So this is my perspective: you can’t be a journalist and stop being human. In addition, you can’t be a journalist who happens to be Catholic and stop looking at the Gospel in what you do. The same applies to Church workers: You can’t stop being human when you’re a religious superior or bishop.

Once I asked a famous Polish composer, the legendary Wojciech Kilar, what he wished for his 80th Birthday. He said: “Oh, once someone told me, ‘I wish that with all your successes you don’t bishopize.’” This is exactly my observation: once you are in a position of power in the Church, there is a tendency for you to stop being human. You put your yourself in the powerful position, looking at people from above. I’m not saying this happens with everybody. It didn’t happen to any of the last three Popes that led and lead with a great human example, but it happens to many. And it needs to change. I only understood this as a journalist covering the Church.

You have called the sanctions of Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz of Wrocław “a historic and symbolic moment for the Church in Poland.” Can you expand on that?

It is a sign that there are no exceptions for safeguarding, for making the Church a better place. No matter whether you’re a cardinal or bishop, you will face sanctions if you committed a crime or abused power. Also, it is a sign that the Church has improved tremendously on this issue in the last 20 years. Since the time of documents released under the Pontificate of John Paul II, such as Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, until Vos Estis Lux Mundi under Pope Francis, the change has been visible and successful. And the example of Cardinal Gulbinowicz is only one sign of it.

What was your favorite experience while you were making the documentary on St. John Paul II?

It’s the people that I interviewed and met that have his reflection in their eyes. People like Danuta Rybicka for instance (the one that created Wojtyła’s nickname for kayaking trips – Wujek – Uncle), or Rocco Buttiglione or Stanisław Grygiel, his longtime friends. These people are fighting for the memory of St. John Paul because they know by experience that he is someone we need today. He is a signpost for today’s world, like he has been for these friends of his. That’s after all what the saints are for – to be signposts, no matter whether they have been born 2000 years ago or in 1920 or 1990’s like Carlo Acutis, they show us the way and this is a beauty of experience in the Church.

My first film was about John Paul II, the human being and liberal arts master, and it was a blast to discover that face of John Paul. My second film is about a more dramatic aspect of his life, but I can’t say much about that until we release the details of my next production, which I hope will happen soon.

What is something that I wouldn’t think to ask but that will help American Catholics understand why you have traveled all this way to study communications on this issue? 

The American church has over twenty years of experience in dealing with clergy sexual abuse. Twenty years after your “Spotlight” moment you have both best practices to deal with the problem, and mistakes that others can learn from.

Poland, my homeland, is now in its “Spotlight moment.” Imagine that today, in 2021, you would have to face everything you faced in 2002, 2003, and 2018, with Theodore McCarrick still around. That would be painful, right? Well, it is very painful for my Church at this very moment. The institutional Church is struggling dramatically to face this crisis. Effective communications can and I am sure will be a helping hand in dealing with this.

What is hopeful is that the Delegate of Child Protection, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the Primate of Poland, is supporting my research project, which means that there are perspectives for change and the will to work together. I can only hope others will listen too.