Investigative Reporting: An escape from the Church

Gosia Wozniacka international, investigative, storytelling

The man did not hesitate. He knew this single-aisle Gothic church with a slender tower. It was here he was baptized and attended mass as a child. The old priest was hearing confessions in the confessional. When he finished, the man followed him.
“I know you,” the parish priest smiled benignly. At the office, he pointed to a chair, then reached for the glass armoire behind his desk. He pulled out a voluminous Book of Baptisms and quickly browsed through it.
“Maciej Psyk… I can’t find your last name. Nothing can be done.”
“But that’s impossible. Can I have a look?”
The priest passed the book to him. On large, withered pages, columns of dates and names of newborns, parents, and godparents were recorded chronologically. Each column included the creed: Roman Catholic. Psyk’s name was nowhere to be found. He stood up, thanked the priest and left. It was July 2008. (…) 

So begins my five-month investigation into how the Polish Catholic Church, with the blessings of the Polish government, has circumvented and abused data protection and privacy laws. The story was produced as part of my residency with the Polish Institute of Reportage, a program focused on long-form & literary journalism.  Though I can’t translate the whole piece – it’s pretty long – here are some of the highlights: 

A month after arriving in Poland, I read an article that sparked my curiosity: the Polish Catholic Church had just simplified its procedure for apostasy, by way of which a person can renounce or leave the church. 

I was intrigued, to say the least. Religion is an integral part of the Polish cultural and social landscape; it permeates and shapes everything, from architecture to values to relationships. The Catholic Church is also very much involved – and often actively interferes — in national politics. That this Church would let members of its flock leave with such ease was fascinating and somewhat suspicious.

As I started doing research, I realized there was a lot more to this story. The church was, in fact, promoting apostasy – essentially a meaningless procedure, since under canonical law baptism cannot be erased – to counter a wave of dissenters who had decided to leave the church with the help of secular law. They had been baptized as children, but no longer believed in God and/or disagreed with the Church’s meddling in politics. And, like my main character Maciej Psyk (who opens the story), they wanted to be removed from church registers. 

For six years, they fought so that the secular law – Poland’s Personal Data Protection Act – would be deemed more important than canonical law. Hundreds of cases were filed in the Polish courts, and continue to be filed. This litigation campaign is partly based on a similar approach in Italy, where former Catholics won (also through the courts) the option of leaving the Church under secular law – the Italian Data Protection Act. Italians no longer need to follow the religious procedure of apostasy to leave the church. Instead, they can send a letter to their parish priest, who must make note that they’ve left the church for good. Similar campaigns have also been successful in France, Belgium, and Spain. 

In Poland, things didn’t go so smoothly. In short: parish priests and the Church leadership hired lawyers to fight the lawsuits. The cases went through the appeals process. For the first few years, the court declined to honor the country’s secular law, arguing that canonical law had a higher standing. Once the cases reached the Supreme Administrative Court, there was a breakthrough. The judges ruled on the side of secular law: “Leaving the church should be considered only on the basis of secular law,” they wrote, “because it concerns the freedom of conscience and religion and the protection of personal data, ie. the fundamental rights of citizens.” After that, the Polish agency in charge of personal data ordered hundreds of parish priests to note in their Books of Baptisms that their parishioners had left the church. 

Many of the priests refused to follow those orders, and government officials didn’t interfere. And within three years, the higher court reversed its own decision and gave canonical law the upper hand. No one knows exactly why. It could be that the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) had just won the election and the Church was one of its closest allies. Whatever the reasons, the verdicts uncovered a state that the Polish government did not wish to admit: that the separation between Church and State isn’t yet a full reality in Poland. 

And why, you may wonder, is data protection important for churches? For one, churches now use complex online databases to store myriad information about their parishioners – from their beliefs and family relationships to financial information. Some of those databases may not be fully secure, based on some testing of sample databases, and it’s not known whether database administrators (mostly priests) properly follow security procedures. Also, churches in Poland sometimes post names and addresses of parishioners who didn’t pay church dues, for example. Church leaders also use the total number of parishioners in Poland to get government subsidies and other perks.  

It was fascinating and challenging to report this story. I pored over hundreds of pages of litigation, sat in on several cases in Warsaw, interviewed in person half a dozen participants throughout Poland, spoke to countless experts and lawyers, read government documents, etc. I loved reporting in Polish, my native language. One challenge was to use the techniques of narrative writing to write a story that concerned hundreds of court files. To do this, I chose several characters and told the story through their personal lives and legal cases. I think this was a great approach. 

If you read Polish and don’t have paid access to Gazeta Wyborcza, here’s a PDF of the story. 

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