By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
As seems to be inevitable once the contagion of scandal is unleashed, new waves of revelations and accusations have deepened a sense of crisis in the Polish church, still reeling from the impromptu resignation of Warsaw’s new archbishop on Sunday.
Any hope that the departure of Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus would lay to rest controversies over the alleged collaboration of Polish clergy with the Communist-era security forces quickly dissolved on Monday, as another senior Polish cleric stepped down under the weight of similar allegations, and a major newspaper disclosed a memo from senior officials of the security service, dated 1978, which asserted that twelve Polish bishops were cooperating at that time in plans to influence the Catholic church.
The document cites the twelve bishops only by code names. It describes efforts by the security agency to influence the selection of a successor to Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Warsaw, known as the “Primate of the Millennium” for his staunch resistance to the Communists. The Communists were particularly eager that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, who had clashed repeatedly with the government, not be given the job; in the event, Wojtyla was elected in 1978 as Pope John Paul II instead.
In yet another shocking disclosure, the Polish weekly Wrpost unearthed documents claiming that a Polish auxiliary bishop had reported on meetings of the Polish bishops to the secret police from 1963 to 1970, including discussions of the Polish contingent at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). One document apparently shows that the auxiliary bishop, Jerzy Dabrowski, who operated under the code name “Ignacy,” received a payment of 70,000 Italian lira in November 1965 from the secret police.
Dabrowski was a close confidante to Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Warsaw, and helped broker negotiations in the 1980s that eventually led to the election of a democratic government and the end of the Communist era. Dabrowski died in a car accident in February 1991, and some commentators are now asking if his death might somehow be linked to his relationship with the security agency.
The security forces also apparently hoped to enlist the twelve “cooperating” prelates to attempt to rein in two brother bishops perceived by the Communists as especially recalcitrant – Archbishop Ignacy Tokarczuk of Przemy?l, and Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz of Wroclaw.
Polish sources stress that documents drawn from secret service archives often contain inflated claims from security personnel eager to impress their superiors, so their assertions cannot always be taken at face-value. Nevertheless, the general pattern of collaboration by clergy on a wider scale than previously imagined seems clear.
Further disclosures seem inevitable, including the imminent publication of a book by Fr. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, a anti-Communist activist who was beaten by the security service, and who says he will document the Communist penetration of the church in Krakow, the archdiocese once led by Wojtyla.
On Monday, Fr. Janusz Bielanski, rector of Krakow’s prestigious Wawel Cathedral, resigned Monday after charges that he too had collaborated with the Communists. Those charges first surfaced more than a year ago, but pressure on Bielanski intensified in recent days.
In general, Polish sources said the recent scandals have been particularly devastating for the church in Poland because they strike at its chief source of pride in the 20th century – its resistance under the Communists.
There was also media speculation Monday that the papal nuncio in Poland, Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, might be recalled or reassigned for his reported failure to adequately brief the Vatican about the seriousness of the charges against Wielgus.
Jaroslow Gowin, former editor of the Catholic magazine Znak, said that in the past Kowalczyk has been slow to relay potentially damaging information, citing the case of Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, who resigned from the Pozann archdiocese in March 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal.
On Monday, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, in effect told Corriere della Sera that the Vatican had been misled.
“When [Wielgus] was nominated, we did not know anything about his collaboration with the secret services,” Re said.
Sources told NCR that researchers from Poland’s Institute of National Memory had long been aware of potentially damaging files about Wielgus, suggesting that whatever screening that went on before his nomination was announced Dec. 6 had been inadequate.
“The people responsible for the procedure of appointing such candidates applied the traditional way of doing it, which means it was without an investigation and was based on their confidence in the truthfulness of the candidate,'' said Jesuit Fr. Dariusz Kowalczyk, the order’s superior in Warsaw.
Observers of the Polish scene say the recent scandals come at an especially vulnerable moment for the church. It no longer has John Paul II as a point of reference, and faces a rapidly secularizing culture. According to recent data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, just 36 percent of Poles describe religion as a “very important” force in their lives, a figure which is still higher than the European average, but substantially lower than the United States and most of the developing world.