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Concordat Watch - Poland - content area

The Property Commission (1989-2011) — Church land grab secured by the concordat

Poland's concordat removes Church land claims from parliamentary control. For two decades the Property Commission, which compensated the Catholic Church with land and money, accepted the Church valuation of the land it wanted. Yet the often drastic undervaluation could not be challenged in any Polish court. In 2004 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that this let the Polish Property Commission violate the right to a fair trial.

♦  For a good summary, see Poland’s Property Commission on Trial for Deals that Handed Millions to Catholic Church (2013) 


This huge complex in Legnica was given
as compensation for property taken from the Church in the East.
In other words, the Polish Government paid for land confiscated
by other countries. In 1993 it was turned into a seminary for priests. 

 

In a poll taken at the end of 2010, the number of Poles who wanted the land seized by the Communists to be returned to the Catholic Church was evenly matched by those who didn't: [1]

Confiscation and sale of the assets transferred to the Church after 1989, would really put our country on its feet. After all, these are the estates of Poles which were extorted centuries ago under the penalty of hell. [2] 

 Public scepticism has been fed by newspaper articles describing how Church claims for compensation have defrauded many Polish towns of valuable land which they had planned to use for the public good. It doesn't help the image of the Church that to close some of these questionable deals it used a former agent of the Communist secret service, the notorious SB. [3]

In the Czech Republic and Hungary, it is parliament that decides each land claim by the Church. [4] But not in Poland. There the Property Commission (Komisja Majątkowa) which “compensates” the Catholic Church with land and money is not accountable to anyone. Thanks to this arrangement the Catholic Church has become the largest landowner in Poland. [5] 

A former Director of the Property Commission admitted that the law setting it up, passed on 17 May 1989, was a rushed job and that it would have required three more months to draft it properly. [6] But it had to be in place to placate the Church before the beginning of the first partly free elections, barely more than two weeks later. The aim of the law was to get the Church to return the favour by advising the faithful to vote for the Communists in Poland, in the hope, ultimately, of preventing the collapse of the whole Communist empire. This law, known as the Rakowski Act, after the Communist leader, has also been called an "unofficial concordat". [7]

After being created by the Communists, the Property Commission was then removed from parliamentary control and set in stone through the concordat with the Vatican which was signed four years later. The “special commission” mentioned in Article 22.2 is none other than the Property Commission which had been created by the Rakowski Act to make out-of-court transfers of land and money from the State to the Catholic Church. [8] It could give a property back, give an exchange property somewhere else or give money. If the original property could not be returned, the substitution was supposed to be on the basis of the present value of the land. [9] However, the Catholic Church itself selected the land it wanted and its own representatives then evaluated it, with no independent verification. Thus it remained a matter of faith that the 47 hectares of farmland lost by the Church in Western Poland had the same value as the 47 hectares it was given as compensation in the neighbourhood of Warsaw [10]

 The Property Commission only dealt with the land claims of religious bodies, primarily the Catholic Church: two decades after the end of Communism the Polish Government had not introduced any legislation to facilitate the restitution of private property. [11] The Property Commission had 12 members, half politicians or civil servants appointed by the Home Office, half representatives of the Polish Catholic Church. Not only did its members in general lack legal expertise, but even the independence of some of them was questioned in view of their close links to the Catholic Church. (For instance, the former “secular” co-chairman, Zbigniew Filipkowski, was a politician prominent in Christian National Union.)  

The European Court says Property Commission can't block access to justice 

The decisions of the Property Commission were final, with no appeal to any court, a conclusion which was upheld by the Polish Supreme Court in 1996. Some Polish legal experts also said that this violated the Constitution. Ryszard Piotrowski, a specialist in constitutional law from University of Warsaw, has said that “The inability to appeal the decisions is doubtful from a Constitution point of view” [12] and Zbigniew Ćwiąkalski, Minister of Justice, calls the Property Commission “a strange, unconstitutional creature, acting arbitrarily, which should not happen under the rule of law. [13] 

And in 2004 the European Court of Human Rights agreed. It found that denying claimants any way to pursue their rights before the court of law violated the right to a fair trial guaranteed by Article 6 §1 of the human rights Convention. [14] 

The ECHR’s verdict has, however, proved a paper tiger. Individuals and organisations still have no procedural means of challenging decisions made by an extra constitutional body. The provision included in the [Rakowski Act] stating that: “the Church in the Republic of Poland acts within the framework of the Constitutional order,” was removed by amendment in September 1991. [15]

In 2008, Polish newspapers aired some flagrant abuses, and the long-awaited legal challenge in the Constitutional Court seemed imminent. At that point, new regulations were quickly issued, which cut back on some of the abuses — but left untouched the finality of the Property Commission's rulings. The next year the opposition, the Democratic Left Alliance, tried to challenge the constitutionality of the Property Commission before the Polish Supreme Court. However, in July 2009 the Chief Justices decided to defer any decision. 

If the Supreme Court ruled against the Property Commission this could be financially disastrous for the state. Then all the Polish municipalities that felt they had been cheated by the pittance they received for their land from Church could sue the government for damages. [16] The Polish taxpayers would then have to pay a massive compensation to the municipalities for two decades' worth of fraudulent gifts to the Church. No one would be naive enough to expect to get any money back from the Catholic Church.

Notes 


Democratic Left Alliance : "X-ray" the Church finances

(Lewica: prześwietlić finanse Kościoła)
Polish Press Agency, Wprost, 16 September 2008.
http://www.wprost.pl/ar/138740/
Translated by Maciej Psyk

The Lewica ["Left", i.e., Democratic Left Alliance] will this week make an application to the Constitutional Tribunal to check the constitutionality of the statute on the relationship between the State and the Catholic Church, especially the parts relating to the Property Commission, according to Left Alliance MP Jerzy Wenderlich.

Wenderlich explained during Tuesday's press conference in the Sejm that the Left Alliance's main challenge to these regulations is over the fact that the Property Commission decisions allow no appeal to the courts.

The Property Commission decides on Church claims for the return of properties which now belong to the State Treasury. According to Wenderlich, this institution should be abolished.

"The present procedure is flawed," said Wenderlich. "It lets the Property Commission give properties to the Church with no possibility of court appeal by those who are currently managing these properties."

According to the Left Alliance MP, the actual value of the properties which the Property Commission hands to the Church is often "many times" more than the estimated value. As an example, he cited the case of a 47-hectare property in the Warsaw's Białołęka district which was given to the Sisters of Saint Elisabeth.

Wenderlich stressed that the value of this land is 500 PLN per square metre, not 65 PLN per square metre as assessed by the Property Commission. [See "Monastic order selling lands dirt cheap", 7 December 2008. Click on the thumbnail picture of the convent for a beautiful enlargement.] "The local governments find this an outrage, but they can do nothing about it."

The Democratic Left Alliance in its application challenges the regulation which gives local authorities no say over claims for land for which plans had often already been made.

"On [the plot in] Warsaw's Białołęka District, schools and kindergartens were to be built, yet  it has now been taken over by the Church", said Wenderlich.

According to him, the exact number of properties that have already been handed over to the Church by the Property Commission is unknown. "Neither the Church side nor the Government care to provide this information."  He added that some time ago the head of the Home Office and Deputy Prime Minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, had refused to reveal this information to the press. 

He added that before World War II the Church owned around 160,000 hectares. The same amount has already been given back to the Church by the Property Commission. "But the Church claims 400,000 hectares in total", stressed Wenderlich.

He appealed to the Government to provide the exact figure for lands given back to the Church.

 Wenderlich pointed out that the Church also demands the return of some properties that were not nationalized after 1945. As an example, he mentioned the Holy Cross monastery on Łysa Góra in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship [illustrated here]. The Church, he said, had already sold it at the end of the 19th century to the Tsar's authorities to be used as a prison [In 1819 the Polish Church sold it to a puppet "Kingdom of Poland" controlled by the Tsar who used this isolated place as a brutal prison. - Ed.]

Wenderlich also referred to a protocol from the Joint Commission meeting on the 29th of March 2006 regarding Church claims. This, he asserts, says that at the meeting it was decided that "the Catholic Church in Poland should be the successor to the German Church properties on the Recovered Lands". According to Wenderlich, this document was signed by the then Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro.

The politician underlined that the statue on the relationship between the State and the Catholic Church, in force from 1989, is designed so that it cannot be changed without Church consent. He said that this is another reason why the Democratic Left Alliance is making an application to the Constitutional Tribunal about this statute.

Wenderlich also pointed out that members of the Property Commission (6 representatives from the Home Office and 6 from the Church side) are paid for their job. The two co-chiefs each earn 7500 PLN per month and the remaining members 4500 PLN.

 


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