WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- A Roman Catholic priest in central Poland was sentenced Monday to 8 ½ years in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing five boys.
It was the toughest punishment given to a priest in Poland in a child sexual abuse case. Priests are considered to be top moral figures by most people in the predominantly Catholic nation, where the church has helped preserve national identity and supported independence efforts under decades of communism.
Previously, priests were generally treated with leniency and handed small or suspended sentences.
But church authorities recently declared "zero tolerance" for pedophile priests after the head of the Episcopate, Archbishop Jozef Michalik, drew outrage with remarks suggesting that children were partly to blame for the sex abuse they suffer from priests. The courts then toughened up their verdicts, like in the case Monday in Rawa Mazowiecka.
The local court handed an unprecedented high prison term to and also banned the 49-year-old priest from approaching his five victims, who were under the age of 15 at the time of the abuse, and from teaching children in the future. The priest was only identified as Slawomir S. because of Polish privacy practices.
The verdict is subject to appeal, court spokeswoman Grazyna Jezewska said.
The priest, who pleaded not guilty, was arrested in April after one of his victims said he was abused between 2007 and 2008.
The court in Rawa Mazowiecka, 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Warsaw, heard that the priest won the boys' trust by lending them money and charging their phone cards.
In Poland's first-ever such case, a 65-year-old priest in southern Poland, identified as Michal M., was handed a two-year suspended prison term in 2004. He was moved to another parish and never served his term.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.