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.

The leaders of Poland's Catholic Church have vowed to carry out a full investigation into the extent of its clergy's cooperation with communist-era security services. The decision by the Polish bishops came after Stanislaw Wielgus [age 67], stunned worshippers earlier this month [January 7] by stepping down as archbishop of Warsaw moments before his official installation mass was to begin [at St. John's Cathedral].

The Catholic Church and the Communists

Experts say Bishop Wielgus' action was inevitable after he admitted 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.

"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," says Weigel.

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 given its historic role in keeping the Polish culture alive and fighting communist oppression.

"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 regained independence in 1918," says John Micgiel. "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."

The "Solidarity" Movement

Experts say the man who embodied that leadership was Pope John Paul the Second. 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," says Weigel. "The Polish church was absolutely instrumental in maintaining a national will to resist communism from 1945 on. The visit of Pope John Paul the Second in June of 1979 was by everyone's reckoning the crucial trigger that eventually led to the "Solidarity" movement, which eventually, over a 10-year period led to what we now know as the revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe."

The June 1979 visit Weigel was referring to was Pope John Paul's return to his homeland eight months after his election as pontiff. For nine days, millions of Poles came out to greet him as he celebrated open-air masses, challenging the communist authorities while not directly attacking the government.

One of those who witnessed the pope's return to his native land was Radek Sikorski, now Poland's defense minister. In an April 2005 interview, Sikorski described the scene -- he was 16 at the time.

"So there we were, a million of us in Gniezno, about 250 kilometers west of Warsaw, which is the cradle of Polish Christianity -- and the power of the crowd -- and the regime was nowhere to be seen", says Sikorski. "And suddenly we felt, 'We are so numerous, how come the country is not ruled by our consent and instead is being ruled by a small clique of apparatchiks [i.e., bureaucrats]?' In the evening, when we went home, we saw television reports in the official, state-controlled media, of just a few nuns and a few old ladies attending the pope, without the crowds. And I think that made everyone realize how duplicitous the regime was."

Secret Police Archives

Now experts say, the Polish Catholic Church must seriously address the issue of priests who collaborated with the communist authorities. George Weigel has been in contact with Polish scholars who are looking at the secret police archives and trying to identify collaborators.

"They tell me -- and I think this is widely known at least in Polish intellectual circles, and perhaps media circles as well -- when all of the dust settles here, it will probably be the case that perhaps as much as 10 percent of Polish clergy were collaborators of one sort or another with the regime, ranging from rather minor sorts of collaboration to more serious stuff," says Weigel.

Weigel and others say what is happening in Poland is also taking place in other east and central European countries as they come to grips with their communist past. Experts say as more and more archives are made public, history is rewritten. And some of these new chapters are painful. But they say such a reappraisal is needed for a country to move forward and finally put to rest the ghosts of its past.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.