Polish archbishop quits in priest sex abuse row

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A Roman Catholic archbishop in the Pope's native Poland resigned yesterday amid allegations that he had sexually harassed young trainee priests.

The resignation of Juliusz Paetz, Archbishop of Poznan, will further weaken the Catholic church. It comes days after Pope John Paul II admitted that the sexual abuse of children by priests was corroding the church's moral authority, and reports that the church had agreed to a multi-million dollar payout to victims who had been abused as children by priests in the United States.

The archbishop, who worked closely with the Pope between 1978 and 1982, organising much of the pontiff's foreign travel, has not been accused of paedophilia or of any offences against minors. But there have been repeated allegations that he sexually harassed trainee priests, the youngest of them 18, at a seminary in Poznan. The archbishop has continually denied the accusations.

One former student at the seminary alleged that the archbishop had embraced and kissed him. Others accused him of paying night-time visits to them, touching seminarians to test whether they were willing to be approached, and using an underground tunnel to drop in unannounced on the young trainee priests.

The archbishop announced his resignation at Poznan cathedral, where he took a farewell mass yesterday. He said he was resigning for the "good of the church", and repeated his denial of the accusations against him.

"The Poznan church needs unity and peace," Archbishop Paetz said. "Bearing in mind the good of the beloved Poznan church, I submitted a request to the holy father to relieve me of my duties. Not everyone understood my genuine openness and spontaneity towards people.

The prelate said: "There was a misinterpretation of my words and gestures". The congregation listened to his statement in silence.

In the Vatican, the Pope appeared to refer to the case in his homily during the Maundy Thursday mass, asking for prayers for "our brothers who didn't meet their commitments that came with priestly ordination". Maundy Thursday ceremonies mark the Last Supper, the day Catholics believe Christ instituted the priesthood, so the timing was seen as significant. The Pope accepted the archbishop's resignation.

The Archbishop of Poznan is one of the most senior figures within the church to have been affected by the recent spate of sex scandals. The last time such a senior figure resigned over sexual allegations was in 1998 when an Austrian cardinal resigned after being accused of molesting boys.

The Catholic church is still highly respected and powerful in Poland, not least because of the central role it played in the struggle against communism, and this is its worst sexual scandal in Poland.

Priests in Poznan have been demanding the archbishop's resignation for several years, and finally succeeded in getting the Vatican to send an investigative team in November. But reports suggest that it was not until the Pope personally became involved that the archbishop agreed to quit. The Vatican is said to have been reluctant to involve the Pope at first because of his ill health. He apparently only became aware of the case after the Poznan priests sent a personal messenger to him in the Vatican.

As long ago as 1999 the rumours were already rife and the rector of the seminary, the Rev Tadeusz Karkosz, banned the archbishop from visiting without a prior appointment.

The scandal emerged in February this year, when Rzeczpospolita, a Polish newspaper that is usually more conservative in tone, splashed the story across its front page, with accounts of the archbishop's alleged abuse from several former seminarians.

In a letter read in Poznan churches earlier this month, the archbishop said: "The biggest criminals have a right to anonymity unless a court decides otherwise. I was deprived of that. Mass media have already judged me and sentenced me." It is not clear whether any further action will be taken against him.

The Pope is due to visit his homeland in August.