By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In a turn of events stunning for its rapidity, Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the new Archbishop of Warsaw just one month ago, announced his resignation today in the wake of on-going revelations about his collaboration with Communist-era security forces
His resignation, however, may eventually be remembered as only the beginning of the story. Polish sources told NCR today that further revelations about the penetration of security forces into the Polish church during the Communist era are expected, including the possible release of a dossier on another sitting Polish bishop as early as next week.
American Catholic writer George Weigel, who teaches regularly in Poland and has extensive contacts in the Polish church, said the Wielgus episode illustrates the need for the church to deal with this chapter of its past.
"It has the responsibility to make a full public record using these materials in a responsible way," Weigel said in an interview with NCR this morning. "Otherwise, it will be open to media exaggerations and distortions, and perhaps international blackmail."
By that, Weigel said he meant the manipulation of similar revelations by forces which have an interest in undermining the moral authority of the Polish Catholic church.
Under the codenames “Adam” and “Gray,” Wielgus apparently was recruited as a young professor of medieval philosophy in 1973, documents produced from Polish archives this week show, and had contacts with the security forces over the next three decades. Wielgus signed a form promising to collaborate. According to media reports, he received special training, was allowed to travel abroad in exchange for intelligence reports, and provided analyses of his colleagues as well as members of the Polish hierarchy.
Earlier stories on this topic:
Controversy over Warsaw archbishop’s Communist-era role deepens Posted on Jan 4, 2007
Debate over archbishop hints at deeper Polish questions Posted on Dec 26, 2006
Weigel said this material is drawn from more than 100 miles of documents from the security forces which have long been available to scholars and researchers, and that "responsible" scholars from Poland's Institute of National Memory, charged with studying the material, "some of whom are very serious Catholics," had warned that the Wielgus appointment would be a problem.
"This was all avoidable," Weigel said.
On Dec. 21, as the controversy first erupted, the Vatican issued a statement saying that Wielgus' past had been taken into consideration, and that Benedict XVI had “full confidence” in his nominee. Over the last week, however, that confidence crumbled.
Recent revelations about Wielgus “have gravely compromised his authority, including among the faithful,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, today. The resignation is “the right solution to deal with the disorientation created in that nation,” Lombardi told Vatican Radio.
Wielgus made his announcement during Mass of thanksgiving for Cardinal Jozef Glemp, who was to end his term as Archbishop of Warsaw today. Instead, Glemp has now been asked to stay on as Apostolic Administrator of the archdiocese until Benedict XVI names another successor.
Cries of “Stay With Us!” broke out in the Warsaw cathedral as Wielgus spoke, and Glemp went on to speak critically about the pressures that led to the resignation.
Benedict will want to proceed cautiously to make sure his next pick doesn’t have a similar set of skeletons in his closet, and that may be a complicated process, according to Tomasz Pompowski, an editor with DZIENNIK, an influential Polish newspaper, who has followed the Wielgus case closely.
Pompowski told NCR that he’s aware of 20 cases involving alleged collaboration by bishops, who were recruited earlier in their clerical careers and groomed as they moved up the system. Pompowski said the degree of collaboration varies from case to case, but some involve allegations at least as serious as those surrounding Wielgus.
The Polish church has long been aware that it’s sitting on a “time bomb” with regard to Communist-era collaborators, Pompowski said, but it avoided confronting these issues during the last years of Pope John Paul II’s papacy for fear of burdening the beloved Polish pope in his twilight.
Wielgus has insisted that he never caused anyone harm, and that he went along with the security forces largely so that he could pursue his academic career, believing that his capacity to travel internationally was important for the church during an age of enforced isolation from the outside world.
Neverthless, Wielgus has acknowledged that “the fact of my involvement has harmed the Church.”
Polish sources say the policy under both the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Warsaw and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, later Pope John Paul II, was that any contact with the security forces should be avoided if at all possible, and immediately reported in writing to ecclesiastical superiors. Wojtyla, for example, insisted on having witnesses present for such meetings, even for the most delicate discussions.
In that sense, observers say, Wielgus went well beyond what was considered normal practice for clergy of the day.
It was not immediately clear what Wielgus’ future may hold, but Polish sources expect something similar to what happened in the case of Archbishop Julian Paetz, who resigned as the Archbishop of Poznan in March 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal. Paetz today lives in an archdiocesan-owned apartment in Poznan and keeps a generally low profile.