WARSAW — Anna Misiewicz was just 7 years old when she was invited into the private chambers of her parish priest, in the small village of Topola in southwest Poland. She thought he wanted her to count church donations.
Instead, she found herself alone with a predator, identified only as Father Jan A. He touched her chest, stroked her body and forced her to use her hands to masturbate him.
Decades later, the smell of milk disgusts her still, she said, “because the priest would drink milk and the taste stayed on his mouth and lingered in mine.”
In a powerful new documentary that is rocking this deeply Roman Catholic nation, Ms. Misiewicz recalls these childhood nightmares, and then goes farther. She summons the courage to knock on the door of her abuser, a feeble old man but still a priest, and pose a simple question: Why?
“I should never have done it,” the priest says quietly in a moment captured on secretly recorded video. It was “some stupid passion,” he says. He then offers an apology and asks to kiss her hand. She can barely contain her disgust.
The scandal of abuse by priests is not new to Poland, documented by journalists and the church itself, and the pattern of offenses and cover-ups is a familiar one from Boston to Dublin. But in a country where the church continues to play a central role in personal and political life, the issue has remained largely in the shadows.
No longer. The two-hour documentary, “Tell No One,” has transfixed the nation, viewed online more than 18 million times since it was released Saturday.
“We are finally witnessing a national reckoning and it’s the same kind that brought justice in churches in other countries,” said Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, an activist and opposition lawmaker. “This film shows in black and white the systemic rot among the clergy.”
Much of the abuse outlined in painful detail took place in the 1980s, when the church, led by Poland’s favorite son, Pope John Paul II, stood at the vanguard of the fight against Communism and Soviet control.
The revelations have forced a painful discussion about how John Paul, now venerated as a saint, failed to take action to protect children. And the legacy of some priests who were considered heroes of that era is being called into question.
One of them, the Rev. Henryk Jankowski, was known as “the chaplain of Solidarity” and was close to Lech Walesa, the movement leader who became Poland’s president. Last year, Father Jankowski, who died in 2010, was accused of abusing children. This year, activists pulled down a statue of him in Gdansk; officials restored it, but as more allegations surfaced, the city removed it.
The fallout from the documentary is landing on a bitterly divided society that is wrestling with questions of its own identity.
The governing Law and Justice Party portrays itself as a defender of Christendom and its values. Top party leaders have demonized gays and lesbians as a threat to the soul of the nation and accused the European Union of promoting a dangerous secular vision for the continent that is at odds with Polish identity.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful leader of Law and Justice, has accused those who raise the issue of abuse by priests of seeking to undermine the church itself. The party’s support runs deepest in the country’s most religiously conservative corners, outside the major cities, where the church remains at the center of daily life.
But as public outrage has grown, the government has been forced to respond, even if not mentioning the church by name. The Parliament this week moved toward imposing harsher punishments for those who abuse children, and eliminating the statue of limitation on prosecution of such crimes.
“There will be no suspended sentences, there will be severe punishment, perhaps up to 30 years in prison,” Mr. Kaczynski said on Sunday. “And for everyone, regardless of what social functions they perform.”
Other members of his party, however, have attacked the film as politically motivated. Ryszard Terlecki, a deputy speaker in the Parliament, noted that elections for the European Parliament were coming up this month.
“I think it’s not a coincidence,” he said. “It fits into a kind of campaign against the church and us, Catholics.”
At the same time, opposition parties have seized on the film. The left-wing Spring party sought to project it onto a building next door to a church headquarters in Warsaw but was stopped by the police.
The documentary details not only a pattern of abuse that includes allegations of rape, but also the way the church in Poland has effectively shielded priests for decades.
On several occasions, in deeply moving scenes, the victims of abuse confront their abusers.
The documentary, which began filming in 2017, was made by a well-known television journalist, Tomasz Sekielski, and his brother, Marek Sekielski. It was financed through a crowdfunding campaign, with some 2,500 people donating a total of around $120,000.
The archbishop of Gniezno, Wojciech Polak, and Stanislaw Gadecki, the archbishop of Poznan and president of Poland’s conference of bishops, refused to cooperate with the filmmakers.
After the public outcry, they released statements saying that they were “moved” by the film.
“This enormous suffering of the victims brings out pain and shame,” Archbishop Polak said on Saturday. “I apologize for every wound inflicted by the people of the church.”
But other church leaders have sought to conflate the issue of abuse with homosexuality.
Bishop Miroslaw Milewski of Plock, outside Warsaw, said in an interview for a private channel, Polsat News, that “it will be impossible to resolve the issue of pedophilia in church without touching upon the problem of the ‘lavender mafia,’ meaning people who have homosexual preferences or are homosexual.”
His comments stand in stark contrast to those of Pope Francis, who has blamed the abuse crisis on clericalism, a view that excessively elevates priests and their authority. He has promised to address the crisis, and this month he unveiled the first church law obligating church officials worldwide to report cases of clergy sexual abuse and attempts to cover it up to their superiors.
A study published by the Polish church in March found that from 1990 to mid-2018, church officials received abuse reports concerning 382 priests. The study, using data from over 10,000 parishes, said that in those 28 years, 625 children were sexually abused.
Analysts said those numbers wildly underestimated the extent of the abuse. Critics also pointed out that the study did not include information about what happened to the perpetrators after they were discovered, including those who were just transferred to different parishes.
The documentary shows how priests — even those convicted in criminal cases — were not only allowed to remain priests but, in one particularly shocking case, to also work directly with children. The Rev. Dariusz Olejniczak was caught on camera leading a retreat for children despite a lifetime ban on working with youth after being convicted of abusing children.
After the film’s release, he filed a request to be removed from the priesthood.
Marek Sekielski, the producer, said the film has been trending beyond Poland, in Iceland, Ireland, Norway and many other countries. There have been big promises in the past, but “the beautiful words of the highest church officials have often been contradicted by the priests’ actions,” he said.
Still, he is hopeful.
“The reception of our film has exceeded our highest expectations,” he said. “We do see that the film has triggered some real soul-searching among the clergy. We’ve been hearing voices from inside the church that a moment has come to truly change something.”