On March 29, 2020 in Gąsiorowice (Jemielnica commune, Opolskie Voivodeship), an unknown perpetrator devastated the historic roadside chapel dedicated to the Mother of God. This act of vandalism aroused strong emotions in the local residents, but also the desire to repair the damage as soon as possible. We presented the above-mentioned event in a report published on our YouTube channel, but since similar attacks on objects of worship are relatively frequent, it is worth paying more attention to it and providing a broader commentary.
The devastation of the chapel in Gąsiorowice is not an isolated case. Three similar acts of vandalism were reported in the near future in the same area. Also from other regions of Poland, we hear more and more often about the destruction of shrines, statues of Jesus, Mary, the cross, and figures of saints.
It should be remembered that the incident in Gąsiorowice is still subject to the actions of law enforcement agencies, therefore it is not possible to prejudge its outcome or whether the perpetrator will be convicted of a crime. Nevertheless, the situation, also due to the difficulty in identifying the perpetrator, is an opportunity to recall how Polish law reacts to such acts, which could be considered as ordinary acts of vandalism or as more and more frequent acts of profaning the sacred sphere caused by reluctance and even hatred of religion as such or of believers.
Such acts do not have to and should not go unpunished. There are a number of legal regulations regulating this issue. An act of vandalism committed against an object of worship may include:
In this post, we will discuss in which situations it is possible to apply Art. 196 CC. Article 196 of the Criminal Code penalizes offending the religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting the object or place of religious worship: "Whoever offends the religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting the object of religious worship or a place intended for the public performance of religious rites, is subject to a fine, restriction of liberty or imprisonment. up to two years".
The perpetrator of the act described in Art. 196 of the Penal Code, therefore, exposes himself to liability in the form of payment of a fine, the penalty of restriction of liberty or even imprisonment for up to 2 years. The Polish legislator therefore provides for strict protection of religious feelings. According to the judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal of October 6, 2015 in the case SK 54/13 in Art. 196 CC, religious feelings of believers are protected, which means freedom from behavior that offends (insulting) these feelings, as well as freedom to manifest the religion professed by a person.
When can you be considered offended by others' religious feelings? Insult means any demeaning, abusive behavior that does not have to involve material interaction, but also uttering degrading, insulting words. The insulting behavior must evoke an emotional reaction in believers - members of a given religious community - in the form of "sadness, shame, embarrassment, a sense of dignity being violated". It must therefore be considered as demeaning or insulting to the object or place of religious worship by a typical member of the community. It is enough that such a reaction is triggered in one person. Moreover, it is not required that such a person observes the abusive behavior directly - the feelings may also be insulted as a result of later encountering the effects of the abusive behavior or publishing material containing such behavior.
The perpetrator of the attack in Gąsiorowice not only broke the windows in the chapel, but also drastically destroyed three figures in the chapel: two figures of the Mother of God were decapitated, and a figure of the Heart of Jesus was smashed. The destruction of the chapel caused a feeling of sadness and a sense of violation of dignity in the local inhabitants. The local community is appalled by this situation and wants to restore the proper appearance and respect to the devastated place as soon as possible, which is confirmed by numerous media reports about this event.
The insult must be made in public, that is, in such a way that it will be contacted by a greater or an unspecified number of people. This premise was met when a roadside chapel in Gąsiorowice was insulted - it is a public place, open to the public and frequented especially by the local community.
Objects of religious worship are objects that a given religious community surrounds with actual worship and veneration. From the legal point of view, the subject of worship is: "God himself, His images, manner of representation, figures of saints or the Virgin Mary, specific signs, rituals or words having the character of celebrating the sacraments." The object does not therefore mean only a material thing in this context. The drastic destruction of the sculptures of Mary and Jesus meant that not only the sculptures that are venerated were insulted, but above all God himself and the Mother of God, which are the objects of worship and veneration in the roadside chapel in Gąsiorowice. Undoubtedly, the figures of Mary and Jesus performed a religious function in the chapel, referring to a different, transcendent reality - and for this reason the local community reveres and worship them. Moreover, it is irrelevant for the destroyed statues to be worshiped whether they have been consecrated and officially placed by a priest or an ecclesiastical institution.
A place of religious worship is a place that is specially adapted to perform worship or religious acts in the presence of other people. For the local community, a roadside chapel is such a place. The inhabitants of Gąsiorowice take care of the chapel every day, considering it a place of religious worship, decorate it with flowers and light candles around it. Passers-by stop for a moment of prayer. In order to recognize a chapel as a place of religious worship, it is not necessary to protect it by a priest or a church institution. What matters is the actual performance of worship and religious worship in this place by a given religious community.
The perpetrator will be liable for the insult if he has committed the act intentionally with a direct intention. The Supreme Court in the resolution of October 29, 2012 in the case I KZP 12/12 also allowed the commission of this offense with the intention of the result, which means that the perpetrator "either wants to offend the religious feelings of other people by such behavior, or by anticipating such an effect of his behavior, agrees to such a result”. The scale of the destruction of the chapel in Gąsiorowice and the manner in which it was carried out leave no doubt that the perpetrator acted with the intention of insulting or at least agreeing to such a result.
According to Art. 59 of the Penal Code, if the social harmfulness of an act such as the one discussed here is not significant, the court may refrain from imposing a penalty, adjudicating at the same time a penal measure, forfeiture or compensatory measure, and the objectives of the penalty will be fulfilled in this way. In the event of the destruction of the chapel in Gąsiorowice, it is difficult to consider the devastation of the figures as socially harmless. The over 100-year-old chapel is one of the permanent symbols that binds the local community together, and to this day, the local residents keep the memory of the history of its creation and treat it as a place of prayer. Its devastation caused a stir for many inhabitants, including the authorities of Gąsiorowice, which proves that a value important for this community was violated. Taking into account the nature of the profanation as well as the reaction of the community and the harm done, it should be considered that the act was highly harmful to the society. Of course, the situation changes if the perpetrator turned out to be insane at the time of committing the act (i.e., in accordance with Article 31 § 1, due to mental illness, mental retardation or other disturbance of mental activities, he could not recognize its significance or direct his/her conduct at the time of the act) - then one cannot speak of committing a crime.
The discussed act of devastation is a crime prosecuted by public prosecution, and therefore does not require special action by the aggrieved. However, since the essence of the crime is to offend the religious feelings of others, those who feel vandalized should report the crime to the police as soon as possible so that they can start their activities. After all, it will be important to determine whether the profanation led to offending the religious feelings of even one person. Unfortunately, the most common reason for discontinuing an investigation is the difficulty in establishing the perpetrator. However, if the perpetrator finds himself, he usually admits guilt and understands the futility of his behavior. Moreover, it often happens that the hooligan act was committed for no apparent reason, in which case Art. 57a of the CC, which allows for an extraordinary tightening of the penalty. If an act is committed "out of boredom" or "for fun," it may be questioned whether someone wanted to offend others' feelings and whether he wanted to offend the object or place of worship. Nevertheless, depending on the circumstances, and in particular on the manner of the insult, it would then be considered that the person agreed to such a result.
Author: The Laboratory of Religious Freedom team