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Warsaw Archbishop Resigns After Revealing Communist Connection

International Herald Tribune | January 7, 2007
Craig S. Smith

The newly appointed archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, abruptly resigned Sunday at a Mass meant to celebrate his new position after admitting two days earlier that he had worked with Poland's Communist-era secret police.

The revelation has shaken one of Europe's largest concentrations of devout Catholics and refocused scrutiny on charges of Communist collaboration by the some of its clergy even as the church supported dissidents trying to free themselves from the totalitarian yoke.

Moments before he was to sit on the archbishop's throne at Warsaw Cathedral, symbolically taking his new place in the church hierarchy, Wielgus read a statement saying that he had offered his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI earlier in the day "after reflecting deeply and assessing my personal situation."

The Vatican had announced the resignation a half-hour earlier, saying that the charges surrounding Wielgus had "gravely compromised his authority."

But Wielgus's announcement stunned many people in the crowded cathedral.

"Stay with us," some shouted as Wielgus took his seat beside Warsaw's outgoing archbishop, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, who then took the throne instead. The Vatican has appointed Glemp as archbishop temporarily until a new one can be found.

President Lech Kaczynski, who has led Poland's renewed efforts to expose former Communist secret police agents and their informants, applauded.

The archbishop had tried to minimize reports of his collaboration, which surfaced two weeks after the pope had named him to the job on Dec. 6, insisting that his contacts with the country's feared security service — the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa, or SB — were benign and routine.

But Wielgus admitted to deeper involvement on Friday after documents from secret police files were published in newspapers that suggested he had informed on fellow clerics for decades, beginning in the late 1960s.

Wielgus has maintained that his collaboration with the SB did not involve spying on anyone and did not hurt anyone. Nonetheless, any cooperation between the Polish clergy and the service is troubling to Poles, as it is to people all over the former Soviet bloc, because the church under John Paul II, the Polish- born pope, was a beacon of hope and encouragement to people fighting for freedom from Communist oppression.

That the leadership of the Warsaw archdiocese could fall to a Communist collaborator would have been an unbearably cruel twist for many people here who remember the brutal murder of one of the diocese's most charismatic priests of the era, Reverend Jerzy Popieluszko. One of the first priests from the influential archdiocese to support striking Solidarity members at the Gdansk shipyards, Popieluszko was beaten to death by SB agents in 1984. They dumped his body in a reservoir.

Wielgus assumed his duties as archbishop on Friday as media coverage of his past association with the SB reached a peak. The Polish church's historical commission, which the country's bishops — including Wielgus — had asked to review evidence against him, issued a statement during the day that "numerous, substantial documents" confirmed the prelate's "willingness" to cooperate with the secret police.

That judgment forced Wielgus to issue a more contrite statement late in the day and set in motion negotiations with the Vatican that ended with his resignation Sunday.

The Vatican's diplomatic mission in Poland said in a statement Sunday that the pope had accepted the resignation.

In Rome, a statement from the Vatican said Wielgus's appointment had been made "taking into consideration all the circumstances of his life, among them also those regarding his past." The statement said that the pope nonetheless made the appointment "with full trust, and full consciousness."

The Vatican operates far from public view, so it is difficult to understand how the appointment went forward despite apparently strong concerns in the Polish church. But the uproar seemed to echo several criticisms of Benedict following the angry reaction among Muslims to a speech he gave in September that seemed to equate Islam with violence.

The first is that although his expertise on doctrine and theology are unquestioned, some critics say he has seemed to lack a full grasp of the politics inherent in an organization as large and complicated as the Catholic Church.

And as in the controversy over the speech that mentioned Islam, there have been suggestions that the pope has either not been well served by his advisers in the broader Vatican bureaucracy, or that he has tended to make important decisions largely on his own.

The last-minute resignation turned the ceremonial Mass into a commemoration of Glemp, who led the archdiocese during the last years under Communism and was regarded a champion of the pro-democracy movement. Hundreds of distraught Catholics gathered in the rain outside the cathedral.

Glemp, who had supported Wielgus throughout the weeks of scrutiny, delivered a homily defending the prelate and warning against passing judgment based on incomplete and flawed secret police archives.

The documents are often elliptical and incomplete, and were sometimes embellished by secret police officers eager to impress their superiors, experts say.

"Today a judgment was passed on Bishop Wielgus," Glemp said. "But what kind of judgment was it, based on some documents and shreds of paper photocopied three times over? We do not want such judgments."

Glemp's comments highlighted a deep division within the Polish church, one that is mirrored in societies across the post-Soviet bloc, between people who are willing to forgive and forget and those who insist that past Communist collaborators be exposed and be excluded from positions of authority.

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