John Hinton considers why Archbishop Wielgus — and possibly hundreds of other priests — agreed to inform on the Church under the Communist regime
The sudden fall from grace of Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus has dramatically illustrated how the shadow of the hammer and sickle still haunts many in Poland. It may be nearly 20 years since Communism fell but what still lurks in the secret archives of the SB, the acronym for the dreaded security services? In a review of the service's files — known in Poland as Lustracja — a number of public scandals have broken in recent years. One could be sceptical about the motives behind such purges. Yet these are presumably justified on the basis that the men and women named in the secret service files "shall never darken our doors again". In addition it has become politically correct in Poland for those who cooperated with the Communist regime to be exposed, replaced and reviled.
Certainly, Archbishop Wielgus's name was in the files, leading to his dramatic resignation. worldwide coverage in the news media and warnings about new disclosures to come.
And they came quickly: the next day, Fr Janusz Bielanski resigned as rector of Krakow's Wawel Cathedral. the burial place of Polish kings and queens and a landmark in Church history. He had also evidently cooperated with secret police in the Communist era.
Meanwhile, there were recriminations about who had unmasked, or "misinformed", Stanislaw Wielgus to Pope Benedict. A former aide to Pope John Paul II, Polish priest Fr Adam Boniecki took the view that they should suffer consequences. After all, in December the Vatican press office had said that Pope Benedict had "full confidence" in the new Warsaw archbishop after Vatican officials "had taken full account of all his life circumstances, including those connected with his past".
Fr Boniecki complained to the Rome newspaper La Repubblica: "This is serious and someone should pay for it — in Poland, in the Secretariat of State or, according to some people, among the ultra-conservative German friends of Archbishop Wielgus."
Fr Tadeusz IsakowiczZaleski, who had been carrying out his own inves tigation into the archives for months, accused the Church of lack of zeal.
Records showed that the Polish bishops' conference and the Vatican's apostolic nunciature in Warsaw waited until January 2 to request archival documents on Archbishop Wielgus from Poland's National Remembrace Institute.
"Rumours were circulating for months.Why was there such hesitation in checking them out?" he asked the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The evidence he'd seen, he revealed to the paper, indicated that Wielgus was not an "innocent" collaborator but an "important agent" employed for spying not just within Poland but also outside the country. One account says he first agreed to spy for the SB in 1967 when he was a philosophy student at Lublin University and operated under three pseudonyms.
The Polish paper, Rzeczpospolita, which broke the story in Warsaw, claims to have unearthed his signed agreement to work for the SB along wA documents showing he gathered information about Church matters and students.
Other papers suggested he was more than an ordinary informer he received "special training" for agents and was given a grant to study in Germany as a reward for his collaboration. That meant, according to Fr Isakowicz-Zaletski, that he was well trusted by the secret police. Yes, it was true that secret police documentation could hardly be treated "like the Bible". but there was enough to indicate that Wielgus was unusually important to the Communist regime.
Bishop Pieronek, former secretary of the Polish bishops conference, said Archbishop Wielgus was responsible for having lied to the Pope by covering up his collaboration: Still, he said, there was no doubt that people opposed to the Church would continue to use information from the SB archives to attack the Church. The best response? — to admit past mistakes and publish the pertinent information.
That said, he admitted one difficulty: the sheer mountain of material. The bishops' historical commission reviewing the documents has only five people at work reviewing documents from the Communist era; it needs 100 people to do the job properly. Indeed. every diocese in Poland should institute a local commission to do the same.
And precisely what sort of information did Archbishop Wielgus provide? Detailed documents, among 68 pages of material published by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Polska, include an instruction manual marked "Top Secret" signed by then Fr Wielgus under one of his pseudonyms and listing basic assignments when he was a student in Germany in 1978.
Among the items Polish intelligence wanted: detailed information on Radio Free Europe — then based in Munich — and regular reports on professors and students at the German institute he was attending.
By no means clear was how much of this requested information he actually provided. But one request made just seven months before the election of Pope John Paul — was for an evaluation of Church-state relations in Poland. More of a job for a socio-economic team from The Economist than a spy.
The recent disclosures about Archbishop Wielgus have undoubtedly led to recrimination and unhappiness in the Church and throughout Poland. But in countries that formerly stood behind the Iron Curtain. the issues posed by "bravely" facing the past might have been predicted.
This certainly happened in the reunited Germany where people were initially shocked at the revelations of corruption and disloyalty when East Germany's Stasi files were uncovered.
It happened in Hungary, in Austria, in Czechoslovakia. And now Poland, involving at least one senior figure in the Catholic Church; a man whom one would have thought was beyond reproach.
Someone who has spent much of his career witnessing the unravelling of Communism at first hand is Colin McIntyre, a Reuters correspondent in the Eastern Bloc countries for many years.
"You had to become used to the fact that that spying was often quite an unexceptional activity," he recalls.
"Among the reporters in Prague I knew one who worked for a well-known American news agency and 'joked openly about being an informer. He used to ask us: 'Got anything to tell the boys?' He'd then pass on the latest piece of drivel.
"Clearly, a certain type of spying might involve danger and betrayal but much of it was simply matter of fact, almost routine. It might involve opinions from the executive like: 'Could we get away with doing that?"' In such a climate of dodgy information, lies and uncertainty everything was questioned.
"There were so many part-time informers in Romania, the joke was that one half of Romania was spying on the other half," McIntyre explains.
The motivation for becoming a Communist spy or informer might be buried in the past. Early on in a career, an individual might have been noticed as a potential high-achiever and helped across a hurdle — not necessarily financial but (for instance) by being allowed out of Poland to study in Germany in return for certain favours; non-specific information on individuals, a report on how the Church might react to changes in the law.
"An ambitious individual might be easily tempted to help, provided he wasn't harming anyone directly and knew he would get on better in return. It would be a bit like joining the Freemasons," McIntyre says.
"The Church is strong in Poland but getting passports renewed by the authorities was a real problem at the time and getting help with that in exchange for some apparently harmless information would be very tempting.
"But the Archbishop would not. I think, do anything which would help the Communist state in an ideological sense, because that State is atheistic and contrary to everything he believes in." The options as to "why in God's name he did it?" are starting to run out. It is extremely unlikely to have been for money. One cannot imagine how Wielgus could have been a paid informant for all those years without being found out long before his dramatic resignation minutes before his inauguration as head of the Archdiocese of Warsaw.
What, then? The only other way people become informers is by doing something compromising for which they are blackmailed by the authorities or make a faulty "judgment call" — as the Americans say — which can come back to haunt them.
A little "help" with the bureaucracy of travel in a Communist state is hardly in the same category.
So that can — almost — be ruled out.
One thing is certain; miles of information on the Polish and other "secret" archives will not be worth the yellowing paper it is typed on.
As McIntyre points out: "In East Germany the reaction against the people who cooperated with the Stasi and the Communist regime went far too far and eventually caused a huge backlash. This could happen in Poland.
"There has to be good judgment used and maybe the many good things Archbishop Wielgus has done should be weighed in the balance."
He will, no doubt, be surrounded by advisers. And many will be telling him that with the Polish nation divided on the issue — many unimpressed by his denials — that the best shot would be to call a news conference and tell the whole story, warts and all.
They'd be right.