Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland's Catholic Church Embarrassed over Revelations of Collaboration with Communist-era Police

The recent resignation of the archbishop of Warsaw over his collaboration with the communist-era secret police has deeply embarrassed Poland's Roman Catholic Church. VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the latest revelations in the context of the Catholic Church's role in bringing down communism in Poland.

Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus stunned worshippers several days ago by stepping down as archbishop of Warsaw moments before his official installation mass was to begin at St. John's Cathedral. He read from a letter he had sent to Pope Benedict XVI offering his resignation -- a resignation the pontiff accepted.

Experts say Bishop Wielgus's decision was inevitable after he admitted earlier this month that he had collaborated with the communist-era Polish secret police.

George Weigel is a Washington-based expert on Poland's Catholic Church. He says secret police documents -- now held by an organization in Poland known as the Institute of National Remembrance -- prove Bishop Wielgus did indeed collaborate. But he says it is not clear what was the nature of his collaboration.

He said, "What we know is that he signed a letter of agreement to collaborate when he was a young man. There is no evidence in any of the materials that have been brought to light subsequently, that he in fact did anything of consequence."

"That may come later -- but what we know now is only the letter of agreement to collaborate. The other 67 documents that have been released publicly are the reports of secret police agents -- they are all second hand," he added.

In his defense, Bishop Wielgus said he never hurt anyone nor did he inform on anyone.

Experts -- such as John Micgiel of Columbia University in New York -- say the revelations concerning Bishop Wielgus are very damaging to the Polish Catholic Church.

He said, "This is extremely embarrassing. It is also, of course, embarrassing for the Vatican," he said. [With] a background check, a serious background check, these files would have revealed this information much earlier had the [Catholic] hierarchy in Poland been interested in looking for it. But it wasn't."

Micgiel says it hurts the church's image, given its historic role in keeping the Polish culture alive and fighting communist oppression.

He said, "The Catholic Church was, in essence, the repository of polish national thought and culture in the period when there was no Poland. So for 123 years, after the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, it was basically the Catholic Church that was reminding people about their culture, about their history."

"And that role continued after Poland gained independence in 1918. When the communists took over after the Second World War, which was a huge catastrophe and tragedy for Poland, people quite naturally looked to the church for leadership -- and they got it," he continued.

Experts say the man who embodied this leadership was Pope John Paul II. George Weigel -- who wrote a biography of the Polish-born Pope -- says his role was vital in helping the "Solidarity" free trade movement and, ultimately, in bringing down communism.

"No church, no "Solidarity" -- no revolution of 1989. I mean, the Polish church was absolutely instrumental in maintaining a national will to resist communism from 1945 on," said Weigel.

"The visit of Pope John Paul II [to Poland] in June of 1979 was by everyone's reckoning the crucial trigger that eventually led to the "Solidarity" movement, which eventually, over a ten-year period led to what we now know as the revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe," he added.

Now, experts say, the Polish Catholic Church must seriously address the issue of priests who collaborated with communist authorities.

Analysts believe that as more files come to light, more priests will be implicated. But they expect that the number of priests who have collaborated will turn out to be far less than those who resisted Poland's communist government.