Warsaw (AFP) - Demonstrators gathered in Poland on Sunday to defend the reputation of late pope John Paul II, who has been accused of concealing child abuse crimes while he was archbishop of Krakow.
Thousands of people in the staunchly Catholic nation turned out in Warsaw on horseback, wearing historical costumes or draped with the flags of the Vatican and Poland, AFP journalists saw.
The events to honour John Paul II were planned by Catholic organisations with the open support of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS).
"As every honest man defends his children, father and mother, all of Poland defends John Paul II," read one placard carried by demonstrators.
Mariusz Blaszczak, defence minister in the right-wing, populist PiS, which is facing parliamentary elections in a few months' time, attended the rally in support of Poland's famous son, born Karol Wojtyla.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda posted messages on their websites defending the late pontiff.
"What is happening in Poland is a huge scandal," said demonstrator Alicja Fabertynowska."It's deliberately aimed at destroying his authority," she said of John Paul II, who died on April 2, 2005.
The late pontiff is widely venerated in his homeland, even if the official cult of Saint John Paul II is beginning to show cracks, particularly among youth.
On Sunday a statue of the late pope was defaced in the central city of Lodz.Its hands were covered in red paint and the monument was daubed with the words "Maxima culpa".
The Latin phrase meaning "most grievous fault" refers to the title of a book by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, recently published in Poland, which alleges the future pope knowingly concealed paedophilia within the Polish Catholic Church when he was archbishop of Krakow.
The book and an investigation aired by private broadcaster TVN have provoked angry debate in Poland, pitting the government and Church against the political left-wing and centre.
"We pass the test by carrying the truth, which must oppose lies, slander and insults," Morawiecki said on Twitter.
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski sent a letter to party members saying: "We thank God for this immeasurable gift that the Polish pope was and remains for the Church, for Poland and for the world."
"We stand to defend his honour and his good name."
Kaczynski and Morawiecki were due on Sunday evening to attend a concert organised by state TV in the main square of Wadowice, where Wojtyla was born.
National rail company PKP handed out the late pontiff's favourite cream cakes to passengers on some high-speed trains.
The president, Duda, is scheduled to travel to the Vatican on Monday to kneel before John Paul II's tomb.
Allegations of cover-up
Last month, days before "Maxima Culpa" went on sale in Poland, TVN aired an investigation saying Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, as he then was, protected paedophile priests while he was head of the Church in Krakow.
He transferred the priests to other dioceses -- one as far away as Austria -- to ensure no scandal ensued, investigator Michal Gutowski said.
Wojtyla, who was pope for 27 years from 1978, wrote a letter of recommendation for a priest accused of abuse to Vienna Cardinal Franz Koenig, without mentioning the accusations, says Gutowski.
During his investigation, Gutowski says he spoke to victims of paedophile priests, their families and former Church diocese employees.
He cites documents from the former Communist-era SB secret police and rare Church documents to which he managed to get access.
But Gutowski said the Krakow diocese had refused him access to its own documentary archives.
The Polish Church has in the past refused to provide documents to the judiciary or a public commission of enquiry investigating cases of clergy abusing minors.