Controversy over Warsaw archbishop's Communist-era role deepens

New York

Controversy surrounding the alleged collaboration of the archbishop-elect of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, with Poland’s Communist-era security forces deepened on Tuesday, with the publication of documents purporting to show that as early as 1973 Wielgus vowed to report on the activities of Polish priests abroad in exchange for permission to travel and other privileges.

Wielgus and other church officials, however, continue to insist that his contacts with the Communists amounted to little more than a bureaucratic formality, and that the then-professor of medieval philosophy never informed on anyone.

“At a very general level, such contacts had to be maintained. For example, if I wanted the authorities to allow me to go on a trip abroad, I could not possibly tell the agent who was harassing me to get lost,” Wielgus told the Polish press.

During the Communist era, any Pole wishing to travel abroad was required to meet with government officials beforehand and to surrender his or her identity card in exchange for a passport, which was valid only for that trip.

Wielgus said the only thing he was ever asked to do was to specify his agenda during foreign academic meetings, and to promise not to take part in anti-Communist activity.

That version of Wielgus’ past has been contradicted by some media reports.

Polish journalists asserted yesterday that documents obtained from Poland’s Institute of National Memory show Wielgus operated under the codename “Grey,” that he underwent special training for secret service agents, and even that at one point he attempted to infiltrate Radio Free Europe.

“He was one of the most important collaborators of the communist intelligence in the Church,” said Tomasz Sakiewicz, editor of the Gazeta Polska newspaper, on Polish radio.

Two separate commissions are now examining the files pertaining to Wielgus, one organized by Polish civic groups and another under the aegis of the Polish bishops’ conference. Wielgus himself asked the latter to look into the documents.

The debates surrounding Wielgus are part of broader national efforts in Poland to come to terms with the country’s Communist-era past, including sensitive questions of whether exchanges with security forces were simply an inevitable fact of life in a police state, or whether in a given case they crossed the line into willing collaboration. The examination of files is known as “lustration.”

Evaluating the evidence is tricky, Polish sources say, because it’s often hard to know if the recollections of those involved, as well as the files themselves, can be trusted. Those accused of collaboration have an incentive for downplaying their roles, but the security forces also sometimes inflated the significance of their contacts, according to Polish experts, in order to impress their Communist superiors. That means that someone might have been described as a “valuable informant” who in reality was not passing along anything of relevance.

Polish politician Roman Giertych, head of the conservative League of Polish Families and the nephew of Dominican Fr. Wojciech Giertych, Theologian of the Papal Household under Pope Benedict XVI, called the disclosures about Wielgus “a full-frontal attack on the Catholic Church in Poland.”

Wielgus, 67, was appointed the archbishop of Warsaw by Pope Benedict on Dec. 6. As the controversy about his alleged contacts with the Communists began to swirl, the pope issued a statement on Dec. 12 expressing “full confidence” in Wielgus, and saying that his past had been taken into consideration.

It is unclear whether the latest disclosures will do anything to alter that stance.

Wielgus, who is generally considered a moderate figure in a Polish church often seen as polarized between conservative and liberal elements, is scheduled to formally take office on Jan. 7. Some Poles have called for the ceremony to be delayed until the debates over Wielgus are resolved, but there was no indication yesterday from the Warsaw archdiocese of any delay.

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