Debate over archbishop hints at deeper Polish questions

New York

While Benedict XVI has declared his “full confidence” in Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus, accused by local media of collaboration with the former Communist security services, Polish sources told NCR today that further disclosures about Wielgus are expected, including that he apparently signed a Soviet-era document required of Poles traveling abroad promising to assist in overseas propaganda and intelligence efforts.

Those sources stressed, however, that while some Polish clergy of the era refused to sign the document, others did so without intending to actually fulfill its terms, viewing it largely as a bureaucratic formality. Sources told NCR there is no evidence that Wielgus, 67, ever passed along information that led to anyone being harmed.

Wielgus has acknowledged meeting with the security agency in order to obtain a passport for overseas travel, but has denied ever “collaborating” in the sense of providing information useful to the Communist regime.

Prior to his nomination as bishop of the diocese of Plock in 1999, Wielgus had been a professor of medieval philosophy in Poland, and, from 1989 to 1998, rector of the Catholic University of Lublin.

The debate surrounding Wielgus is part of a larger effort in Poland to come to terms with the legacy of the Communist era, in which many sectors of society were compromised by collaboration with the security forces. Initial estimates from the Polish “Institute of National Memory” were that perhaps 10 percent of Polish clergy cooperated with the Communists, knowingly or unknowingly, though one Polish journalist says the real number may be as much as 30 percent.

In 1989, the last director of the Communist-era security apparatus said there were six bishops at that time who were collaborating, though their names have never been disclosed and hence there’s been no independent confirmation of the claim.

Tomasz Pompowski, an editor with DZIENNIK, an influential Polish newspaper, said that a dossier on Wielgus, containing material not yet made public, has been forwarded by Polish journalists to the Vatican. Pompowski said the material shows that Wielgus had contacts with the security forces, but does not suggest that he provided damaging information.

In mid-December, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Polska published an article suggesting that Wielgus had been an informant of the Communist security forces for 20 years, beginning in the late 1960s, under the code name “Adam.” The article suggested that Wielgus provided information both on other clergy, as well as Polish dissidents.

The accusation was swiftly rejected by the Polish church.

“This publication is an attempt to discredit the authority of the archbishop, which in all likelihood is connected with his nomination to the archdiocese of Warsaw,” said Fr. Kazimierz Dziadak, spokesperson of the Plock diocese.

The Polish bishops issued a statement Dec. 11, later released by the Vatican Press Office, calling “attention to the public injury that has been inflicted against a specific person's right to a good reputation.”

The bishops' statement continued: “Expressing our solidarity with Archbishop Wielgus, we entrust his person and the task he has been given to God.”

On Dec. 12, Benedict XVI added his own vote of confidence. The Vatican statement said the pope had taken into account “all the circumstances” of Wielgus’ life in appointing him to Warsaw, making him the primate of the Polish church, “including those matters regarding his past.”

The head of a church-sponsored commission studying the charges of collaboration against Polish clergy during the Communist era, Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin, said his body has found no evidence to substantiate the charges against Wielgus.

Most Polish historians say it will likely be some time before an accurate picture emerges of the extent to which the Catholic church, as well as other social institutions, were penetrated by the security forces. On the one hand, it’s well-documented that some academics, business people, civil servants and even clergy did knowingly provide information to the Communists, in some cases because of threats and intimidation, in others because they were seeking privilege, and in some cases out of genuine ideological conviction. On the other hand, in many cases Poles would feign cooperation, even providing false information, a distinction which will not necessarily be reflected in the files of the security forces.

Further, historians note, it’s always hazardous to pass moral judgment on the choices people made in a different time, especially living under an authoritarian police state. Hence, they say, splashes in the media about specific individuals may generate discussion, but it will take time to sort through the issues they raise.

Ironically, the controversy over Wielgus comes at a time when a small number of parliamentarians from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party have introduced a motion to have Jesus declared “King of Poland,” a further reminder of the historical role Catholicism has played in sustaining Polish nationalism. The Virgin Mary was declared Queen of Poland in the 17th century in gratitude for what Poles believed was her role in turning a battle with Sweden in Poland’s favor.

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