TYLAWA, Poland — When the allegations of sexual abuse surfaced at her Roman Catholic church, Ewa Orlowska joined dozens of other parishioners in signing a letter of support for their priest of 37 years.
But the suspicions didn't disappear. Reporters descended on this isolated southern village of 400, publishing accounts of decades of alleged abuse. In July 2001, prosecutors opened an investigation and took a detailed statement from Orlowska.
It turned out that she too counted herself among the Father Michal Moskwa's alleged victims.
"I feared him all my life. When I was sitting in church, I was paralyzed by fear of that priest," said Orlowska, 41 and the mother of nine. "I broke the silence, secret and shame. I did it to protect children."
As she later discovered, two of her daughters, now 20 and 21, had also told prosecutors that they were molested.
Moskwa, 64, faces trial this fall on charges of sexually abusing six girls in Tylawa. He denies the allegations and is still saying Mass in Tylawa's only Catholic church.
The case has divided the village 250 miles south of Warsaw.
Many in the quiet, conservative community continue to defend him. But others walk to the next village for Mass.
"We feel as if we've lost our grounding on Earth," said Wlademar Maziejuk, 64, a farmer and one of a group of villagers who unsuccessfully asked church authorities to reassign Moskwa. "The church requires repentance from us, but not from itself."
The Moskwa case marks the first time that the fear and silence veiling sexual allegations have been lifted in this devoutly Roman Catholic country, homeland of Pope John Paul II.
Other cases have followed, reflecting increased openness in a society where the church was once a bastion of anti-communist opposition and retains great influence.
Still, prosecutions have been few. A 39-year-old priest was sentenced to 20 months in prison after a closed trial this summer for sexually abusing five boys under age 15. And a 52-year-old priest is in jail in northwestern Poland awaiting trial on charges of molesting a 12-year-old boy.
There are no lay or professional organizations monitoring the scope of sex abuse in the church. But cases are openly discussed in villages and in one instance published by a writer who says he was victimized by his priest, now deceased.
So far, the Polish church has maintained official silence -- even after Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, a longtime friend of the pope, resigned in March 2002 amid allegations -- which he denied -- that he had made sexual advances on young clerics.
Quitting nearly two years before Boston Cardinal Bernard Law stepped down, Paetz was the first high-level church official to fall to allegations that have shaken the church worldwide.
Although bishops in Germany and the United States have drafted recommendations for curbing sexual abuse, Polish church officials deny that there is any urgency.
"It is only a handful of cases. It's not a significant problem," said Father Jozef Koch, a church spokesman in Warsaw. "The church needs to think about the poor and the unemployed. These are real issues."
A few voices say otherwise.
"As a priest, I feel embarrassed," Father Stanislaw Obirek, a professor at the University School of Pedagogy and Philosophy in Krakow, told the weekly Przekroj. "Something very important has been wasted, and it's the credibility of the Polish Catholic church."
The Moskwa case started in spring 2001 when a handful of villagers went to Przemysl Archbishop Jozef Michalik alleging Moskwa was abusing children.
Prosecutors opened an investigation, but dropped it in October 2001. They said the priest fondled, hugged and kissed young girls, but said this did not amount to sexual abuse because "he did not derive sexual pleasure from his actions."
The following month, after Poland's largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, strongly criticized the decision, the Justice Ministry in Warsaw ordered the investigation reopened.
Details of the allegations remained sealed, and the trial probably will be held behind closed doors.
Moskwa says he is the victim of a plot by the Greek Orthodox priest to win followers in Tylawa.
"The charges are all slander and manipulation. I've always treated children with fatherly kindness," he said. He spoke by phone from the church rectory where he lives, after refusing a face-to-face interview.
Orlowska, who has stopped going to Mass with Moskwa, says she endured abuse from age 7 to 11 and blocked it from her memory. No one would have believed her anyway, she says.
"Whom could I have told? I would have gotten beatings from my parents and would have had to apologize to the priest," Orlowska said. She says her fear and denial were so complete that she exposed her own daughters to his abuse. "When I found out about my daughters, I wanted to go to kill him," Orlowska said, her voice shaking.
She says she felt safe coming forward only after outsiders came to expose the truth.
She still occasionally encounters Moskwa on the village streets.
"I was angry with him, but now when I see him, I feel nothing," Orlowska said. "But I do feel a grudge against the bishop that he hasn't done anything, that he has kept the priest here."