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Second Clergyman Resigns over Communist Ties

January 8, 2007 at 5:15 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The faithful came in droves yesterday to see their new archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, formally installed. Worshippers filled the pews of St. John’s Cathedral, Warsaw’s oldest Roman Catholic Church.

But instead of taking part in a mass to celebrate his installation, Wielgus announced he would resign, just three weeks after news of his past collaboration with the Communist-era secret police was leaked to Polish newspapers.

STANISLAW WIELGUS, Former Archbishop, Warsaw (through translator): I am placing into your hands my resignation from the Archbishop Order in Warsaw.

RAY SUAREZ: His announcement was greeted with both shock and applause, including that from President Lech Kaczynski, whose conservative Law and Justice Party has worked to eliminate the vestiges of Communist influence.

In recent days, Wielgus admitted he met with secret police in the past. Polish newspapers reported he signed documents promising to spy for secret police, which he’s denying.

The Vatican initially supported his elevation, but yesterday a spokesman released a statement on the radio saying, “The attitude of Archbishop Wielgus during the past years of the Communist regime hurt his authority. The resignation from the service in Warsaw and its fast acceptance by the Holy Father seemed the right solution.”

The archbishop of Warsaw is one of the most powerful clerics in a country that is 90 percent Roman Catholic. For decades, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland was known for its public opposition to Communism.

With visits to his native Poland before the fall of Communism, Pope John Paul II supported the Solidarity movement and encouraged a budding democracy.

There was also more fallout today when the Reverend Janusz Bielanski, seen here in May with Pope Benedict XVI, quit, amid similar charges that he, too, had ties to Communist authorities.

The 'offense' and the 'cover-up'

RAY SUAREZ: Now, for some analysis and historical context, we're joined by John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter -- he's in Chicago this evening -- and Genevieve Zubrzycki, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, and author of the book "The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland."

John Allen, the first reports from Poland suggested that Bishop Wielgus was going to try to ride this out. What happened?

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Well, I think what happened is the bottom fell out from under his position. And I think it was not merely the repeated leaks of documents, which collectively demonstrate a pattern of collaboration.

But it was the fact that, when this controversy initially broke in late December and early January, Archbishop Wielgus at first denied having had contacts with the security forces, and that, of course, turned out to be false. He then later denied ever having signed any documents promising to collaborate, and that, too, eventually turned out to be false.

So, you know, in the classic language of scandal, it wasn't just the initial offense. It was also the cover-up.

And I think collectively what that did is create an atmosphere in which it would simply have been impossible for him to govern, because let's not forget the job he was moving into is not simply any job in the Polish hierarchy. This was the archbishop of Warsaw, which is the same throne once occupied by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who was the mentor of John Paul II and the rock that held the Polish church together during the Communist era.

And I think, in the minds of many Pols, it simply would have been unthinkable for a man with a track record of collaboration to have occupied that position. And I think that climate of opinion very rapidly became clear also in Rome, and that accounts for the fact that, on Saturday, Benedict XVI gave the signal that it was time for Wielgus to step aside.

More bishops with Communist ties?

RAY SUAREZ: John Allen, there's also new reporting coming out of Poland this evening, isn't there, that there may be more to this story?

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, I think, Ray, the reality is that the resignation of Archbishop Wielgus is merely the beginning rather than the end of this story.

We know, as a historical matter, that there was a colossal campaign under the Communists to try to penetrate the Polish church. Virtually every priest in Poland had an agent who was specifically assigned to shadow him and, in the language of the intelligence trade, to try to turn him.

Estimates from Poland's Institute of National Memory are that some 10 percent of Polish priests in one form or another did collaborate. And, of course, some of those priests eventually became bishops.

There is going to be a story in the Polish press tomorrow that cites a document drawn from the same archives as the information about Archbishop Wielgus comes from, which is a report to the senior levels in the Communist-era security services purporting to show that 10 bishops at this time -- this would have been in the 1980s -- 10 bishops were actively providing information to the security forces.

Now, they are going to be identified in this report only by code names. We don't yet know their identities.

And, of course, Ray, as with all of these documents, these are raw reports. And it's often hard to know exactly how seriously to take them at the level of detail.

But I think the point is that this is a bomb that has been waiting to go off for some time. And there's no indication as of yet that it's going to be defused any time quickly.

Poland compared to other countries

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Zubrzycki, a bomb that's been waiting to go off for some time. Is Poland different from Hungary, East Germany, the Czech Republic, in the way that it's dealt with its Communist past?

GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI, University of Michigan: Actually, it has, in some way. It has to do with how the transition happened in Poland.

So, in Poland, the transition to or the fall of Communism was initiated through negotiations, the roundtable negotiations in 1989 between representatives of the Communist regime, the Catholic Church, and the opposition, Solidarity.

So there was no revolution in Poland like there was in, you know, Czechoslovakia, or the Velvet Revolution, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or more dramatically in Romania.

So there was a period of time in Poland where both the opposition and the Communist regimes were kind of coexisting in this kind of mutual agreement. And some people then, after the Communists completely left, argued that there couldn't be any process of lustration, the word that is used in Eastern Europe, to describe the process by which collaborators and informants are exposed or identified and barred from being in public office.

So the process of lustration would have been unfair, unequal, highly problematic. And for a large part of 1990s, a lot of people argued for politics of -- they called it the thick line, of trying to not erase the past, but kind of move on to the future.

And this led, actually, then to have a lot of conspiracy theories. Every few years, a new deputy would come up with a list of people who apparently somehow had been collaborators.

So this issue was really not dealt with completely like it was in other places where there was a sharp, drastic break with the Communist regime that could lead them, the post-Communist elites, to deal with the Communist past.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, is this a big blow to the authority of the church inside Poland?

GENEVIEVE ZUBRZYCKI: I think it is especially, because, you know, Poland, like John Allen was talking about -- I mean, the church in Poland was very strong. It's one of the only places in Eastern Europe where the church was not really co-opted or did not collaborate with the Communists.

So it was like a key institution that represented -- symbolically and also very often institutionally -- the nation and also that served as an umbrella organization for the opposition.

A lot of the clergy were persecuted. There is a famous priest who was in the opposition who was beaten to death, tortured and killed by the secret service in 1984, who served in the war. So that's also one thing that's coming up now. If there was someone like Wielgus informing at that time, was he perhaps even involved in things like that? These are things that are coming up now.

Working through the past

RAY SUAREZ: Well, John Allen, the archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Glemp, said that you can't read the documents from the past through the eyes of 2006. He was cutting a break for the man that he hoped would replace him.

If you were to talk to clerics from around Eastern Europe, is there a split over whether the past should be left in the past and how much of that past to dig up?

JOHN ALLEN: Oh, I think there is, and I certainly think you can see that inside the Polish Catholic Church.

I think, as the professor has explained, there's long been debate between those who believe that there's a need for a full public reckoning and those who believe that digging up these old historical wounds will simply invite a cycle of recrimination and accusation that will ultimately be counterproductive.

And I think what happened is that the serious study of these archives really began in the mid- to late-1990s, at a stage at which John Paul had already begun to decline publicly. And I think there was a consensus in Poland -- not just in the church, but in the broader society -- not to press too hard in order to add to the burdens of an already infirm and frail pope who was, of course, you know, the uncrowned king of Poland.

I think now, however, that John Paul is gone, there is an environment in which this debate is going to be hashed out much more publicly. But I think, if there's one lesson from the Wielgus episode, it is that, you know, ultimately, think what it will, it is not up to the Catholic Church in Poland any more to decide whether or not these things become public.

You know, there's a very free and aggressive press in Poland. There are independent scholarly researchers and so forth. I think inevitably this material is going to become public.

So I think the question facing the Polish church now is whether it will happen on its timetable, in a responsible fashion, or whether you will simply continue to follow this cycle of one bomb going off after another, which ultimately could have enormously negative consequences for the credibility and for the internal life of the church in Poland.

RAY SUAREZ: John Allen, Professor Zubrzycki, guests, thank you both.

JOHN ALLEN: You're welcome.