CN: this article contains discussion of sexual abuse and homophobia
On the 2 March 2021 a Polish court acquitted activists Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar, Anna Prus and Elżbieta Podleśna. They had been put on trial for ‘offending religious feelings‘, after using the image of the Virgin Mary whose halo displayed the colours of the LGBTQ+ pride rainbow flag, at a mass protest back in 2019. The specific image in question was that of the Black Madonna, a prominent icon in Catholicism. Outside the courts, as the case was in session, people gathered in support of the defendants, with banners proclaiming, ‘the rainbow does not offend’. Now, powerful anti-LGBTQ+ figures plan to appeal the women’s acquittal, placing them in fresh danger of imprisonment for holding the Church to account for its campaign of hate against the LGBTQ+ community.
Of course the rainbow does not offend. The comparison, made by one of the plaintiffs Father Tadeusz Łebkowski, between the LGBTQ+ pride symbol and the Nazi swastika is ridiculous, even for a country whose president tried to compare LGBTQ+ activism with communist ideology.
The truth is, this case against three LGBTQ+ rights activists was never about religious sensitivities. Gzyra-Iskandar, Prus and Podleśna were protesting against an exhibition held in Łebkowski’s parish that placed ‘being LGBT’ next to cardinal sins such as ‘hate’ and ‘envy’. The LGBTQ+ Virgin Mary image was used by the protesters to denounce blatant hate speech coming directly from the Church, which poses itself as a champion of ‘love thy neighbour’.
Furthermore, the activists’ stated aim was to bring attention to the Church’s moral crisis. A shocking documentary Tell No One by brothers Tomasz and Marek Siekielski has revealed how members of the Polish Episcopate have been helping to protect priests who sexually abuse children.
The activists were standing up against both the anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech and criminal behaviour of members of the clergy. As Anna Prus stated: ‘Silence implies consent, lack of protest implies acceptance. This is why I turned to my friends with a plea: “Listen, we have to do something about this”’.
The fact that the protests in Płock were framed as ‘offending religious feelings’ needs to be addressed. It is clear that the law against ‘offending religious feelings’, which is in itself ambiguous and therefore open to misuse, is broken. As someone who was raised Catholic, I understand the importance that religion has in some citizens’ lives. Protecting the rights of religious communities to practise their faith is the responsibility of any democratic state. However, a law that could have once helped to avoid potential religious discrimination is instead being used to protect the Church from morally dubious and even criminal behaviour.
If a law no longer serves its purpose, then it should be repealed. A situation in which holding the Church to account for its wrongdoing is labelled as an attack on faith is a dangerous one. What the case of the three activists has crudely revealed is that this is no longer a matter of protecting religious sensitivities (which, again, is an open-ended concept), but rather protecting corruption within powerful institutions under the archaic guise of a blasphemy law.
The three women have been acquitted but the case is far from over. Kaja Godek, a prominent pro-life Catholic activist, has already stated on Twitter that both her and Father Łebkowski will appeal the women’s acquittal. Should the appeal go ahead, the result would by no means be a foregone conclusion given the increasing politicisation of the Polish justice system at the hands of ultra-conservative justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro.
The European Parliament has recently proclaimed the European Union an ‘LGBT Freedom Zone’ in response to Poland’s discriminatory ‘LGBT Free Zones’. This is a step in the right direction from an institution which has previously been reluctant to stand up for the Poles in their struggle against authoritarianism. Nevertheless Poles cannot wait for the EU to fix our problems.
It is encouraging that there is finally a debate on obsolete blasphemy laws in Poland. This must be the first of many steps in holding to account institutions such as the Catholic Church that have too often played a role in state-backed campaigns of hate. Moreover, we should not look past the fact that a group of activists face up to two years in prison for standing up for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as for the children sexually abused by priests. This turn of events must act as a wake-up call to all Poles who care about freedom and decency. To that end, we need to evaluate the unfettered privileges of our Catholic Church. Yes, the Church may remain an important cultural institution for some. However, if the cost of ‘protecting’ this institution is imprisoning citizens for holding it to account, and therefore perpetuating the impunity of predatory priests, then whatever facilitates this reality must be revoked. In Poland’s case, an archaic and barbaric blasphemy law needs to be revoked.