Challenges of studying the Church

The Catholic Church is an authoritarian institution. Although bishops are unable to exercise full control over priests and laity, they do enjoy a great degree of authority and decision-making. In theory, the Pope is the absolute monarch. In practice, the buck in each diocese stops with the local bishop.

My experience with studying the Church goes back to May 2017. That summer, I spent three months interviewing Polish bishops for my dissertation project. A year later I engaged in a similar exercise with US bishops to improve my book manuscript. Therefore, when I won a grant to analyze preferences of Polish Clergy, I thought that I am at least semi-ready to jump on this research opportunity (link). And yet the challenges I encountered in Poland were numerous and unexpected.

  • Clerical abuse scandal

The problem of sexual abuse of minors by some Catholic clergy is now well know. It is a global problem affecting many countries and in the early months of 2019, the Polish Episcopate was hit with charges of sexual abuse among Catholic clergy. In March 2019, leaders of the Polish Church issued a report demonstrating that 382 minors were abused between January 1990 and June 2018 (link). Two months later, a documentary titled “But Tell No One” (Tylko Nie Mów Nikomu) depicting confrontations between survivors of sexual abuse and their perpetrators was made available on YouTube. Within days, the movie was seen by millions of Poles within days of its publication. I knew right then that responses to my surveys would be suppressed since regular priests will be more hesitant to volunteer any information that could potentially be used against them. This is true, even thought my survey does not deal with clerical abuse scandal, but perception of participants is what matters for the response rate.

  • Coordination

Knowing that priests will be less likely to take part in my research project, I approached several diocesan bishops asking for their support. Some bishops ignored my requests, and I never heard back from them. Others said that they do not support my project and do not wish that priests in their diocese be contacted. One bishop did not respond to me requests for a long time, so I mailed the surveys out. As soon as I did that, his letter of support came in. In the end, I issued another wave of surveys in that diocese. Finally, some bishops supported my project and issued their official “blessing” in a form of a recommendation letter. In the end, it took me about 8 weeks to coordinate all of this.

  • Money

Mailing almost 2,000 surveys is expensive but I my project was supported both by the APSA small research grant and Albion College, so I knew I can carry it out. The bigger issue was that Polish business were not eager to get paid (link). I wanted to pay for services associated with this project using a credit card. That way I could get easily reimbursed and keep track of my expenses. I was shocked to learn how many print shops in Poland do not accept credit card payments. This is true of other businesses as well. What they wanted is a wire transfer of money, which of course I did not have at the time because that is not how most American grants work. This proved to be the biggest obstacle by far. I speak Polish, I am from Poland, and yet it took me about two months to solve this problem. I am not sure if a foreigner could carry out the kind of work I did this summer.

I’ve read a fair share of methods book, but nothing could prepare me for the challenges I encountered back home. In the end, I learned by doing. It was exciting to study what Polish priests really think, and I am eager to share my results after all the surveys are in. At the same time, it was mentally draining to deal obstacles that very often had nothing to do with research design per se. I am happy to start coding data, and even more happy that the most difficult part of this project is over.

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