WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles joined marches Sunday in defense of the late pope, St. John Paul II, following a TV documentary that alleged he covered up child sex abuse involving clergy in his native Poland before his election as pontiff.
The marches took place in Warsaw and other cities on the 18th anniversary of John Paul’s death. The largest, held in Warsaw, was organized by an anti-abortion group under the slogan: “You awakened us, we will defend you.”
Participants prayed before marching behind relics of John Paul in the capital, led by a popemobile John Paul had used on his visits to Poland. Some marchers carried photos of John Paul. Since the anniversary fell on Palm Sunday, they also carried pussy willows and other tree branches, which is a Roman Catholic tradition on the Sunday before Easter.
The investigative documentary was aired last month by TVN, an independent broadcaster often critical of Poland’s conservative government. It coincided with the publication of a book called "Maxima Culpa' by a Dutch journalist, Ekke Overbeek, alleging that John Paul II helped cover up cases of clerical abuse before becoming pope.
Many Polish Catholics see both investigations as an attack on the legacy of a man revered in Poland as one of the greatest figures in the nation's history and also venerated as a saint by Catholics worldwide thanks to the Vatican's fast-track canonization after his 2005 death.
The issue has taken on political dimensions in Poland, particularly since the country is due to have a parliamentary election in the fall.
The government has called the documentary an attack on the nation's identity and ideals by the liberal political opposition. That is a view that resonates in a country where a large majority still consider John Paul a moral authority, and the ruling Law and Justice party as gotten an apparent boost as its leaders campaign.
Several top officials joined the marches, including the defense minister and the head of the constitutional court, according to commercial broadcaster Polsat News.
Opinion surveys show the party is the most popular one in the country, with its numbers as high as when Law and Justice first gained the power to run the government eight years ago.
In Warsaw, some marchers carried Polish national flags and the flag of Solidarity, the trade union and freedom movement whose creation was inspired by John Paul after he was elected pope in 1978 and which played a crucial role in toppling communism across Eastern Europe a decade later.
A couple who joined the march, Eleonora and Stanislaw Sochal, said they were furious at TVN for producing a documentary they regard as defamatory to the late pontiff.
They remembered communism as a dark time when the nation was controlled by the Soviet Union and described John Paul as the person who inspired the resistance that led ultimately to the country regaining its sovereignty and freedom.
“TVN slanders our authorities. It slanders John Paul and it slanders all of our values,” Eleonora Sochal, 76, said.
Amid the emotional debate about John Paul’s legacy, a statue of the late pontiff was vandalized overnight in the central city of Lodz. Someone covered the monument in red and yellow paint and the words “Maxima Culpa.”
Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, who visited the sculpture on Sunday morning, called the vandalism a “despicable act” and a well-organized element of hybrid warfare.
“It’s about dividing society along these most fundamental lines of our identity,” Rau said.
He did not suggest who the perpetrator might be, but when Polish authorities speak about hybrid warfare, they usually are referring to alleged Russian efforts to sow discord and distrust in Poland.
Polish authorities also marked the anniversary by offering passengers on some state railway rides free cream-filled pastries that are now famous because John Paul loved to eat them. The freebies inspired mockery and criticism on social media, with some saying the state should not be spending taxpayer money to hand out “papal” pastries.
Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press