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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 10:17 GMT
Resignation rocks Polish Church
By Jan Repa
BBC Europe analyst

The outgoing Roman Catholic Archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus
The Wielgus case has divided Catholic opinion in Poland
The resignation of the Archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, over his co-operation with the communist-era secret police is a huge embarrassment for Poland's powerful Catholic Church.

Archbishop Wielgus's resignation was announced half an hour before his scheduled inauguration.

When Polish press reports appeared last month suggesting that he had been a longstanding collaborator the reactions were quite predictable.

The Vatican announced that Stanislaw Wielgus enjoyed the full support and trust of the Pope.

Fellow bishops in Poland complained of media witch-hunts and press hysteria.

There were suggestions that it was all a "liberal plot" to torpedo a known ecclestical conservative.

Documentary evidence

Monsignor Wielgus himself staunchly proclaimed his innocence - until last Friday, when the heads of two separate investigating committees announced that there was no doubt that his co-operation with the communist secret police had been conscious and longstanding.

Wielgus was forced by harassment, shouts and threats to become a collaborator
Poland's Cardinal Jozef Glemp

By then a full facsimile of Mgr Wielgus's secret police dossier was freely available on the internet.

Not only, it seemed, had his connection with the secret police lasted more than 20 years. For five years he had also worked for the communist foreign intelligence service.

Cynics mights shrug their shoulders and say that most institutions tend to close ranks and cover up at the first sight of a scandal.

Poland's Institute of National Remembrance - which investigates Nazi and communist-era crimes, and which holds surviving secret police files - says that between 10 and 15% of Catholic priests collaborated in one way or another with the communist regime. Put another way, though, 85 to 90% did not - despite the various threats and temptations to which many were subjected.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church in Poland enjoyed a quite exceptional authority and prestige during the four-and-a-half decades of communist rule - as a perceived repository of moral integrity and national tradition.

Strong traditions

Will the Catholic Church in Poland now suffer the kind of collapse of authority that, for instance, occurred in Ireland in recent years - following the revelation of a number of child-abuse cases by Catholic priests and their cover-up by Church authorities?

John Paul II and former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa
John Paul II inspired Solidarity during its freedom struggle
Probably not. The popular image of Poland as a priest-dominated society tends to dissolve on closer inspection. Some 90% of Poles declare themselves to be Catholics.

Church attendance on Sunday, at a national average of 50%, remains high by current West European standards. But in a number of major cities the figure is closer to 25-30%.

What Poles actually believe in is problematic as well. According to recent surveys, fewer than 70% believe in an after-life - and only 30% believe in hell. Two-thirds see nothing wrong with premarital sex; and only a quarter accept the Church's definition of artificial contraception as a sin.

As a marker of cultural and national identity, however, adherence to the public rituals of the Catholic Church still appears strong.

That still leaves the question of how the issue of collaborator-priests should be handled.

Pope Benedict XVI, on a visit to Poland last year, argued against "arrogantly judging" people who lived in the past under extremely difficult circumstances. His immediate reference was the flurry of media reports already beginning to appear about the behaviour of priests under communism.

But there was also an obvious allusion to the Pope's own experience as a teenager living in Nazi Germany.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The issue here is not whether or not he should have resigned, but that he should never have stood.
Mike, Moscow

On the other hand, the Wielgus case appears to illustrate that a coherent strategy of exposure makes more sense than panicky denials and indignant protestations of moral virtue.

If the reports are true, it appears that Benedict XVI did not ask to see Stanislaw Wielgus's files before approving his choice as Archbishop of Warsaw - leading to an embarrassing volte-face by the Vatican on the very day of the planned inauguration.




SEE ALSO
Profile: Stanislaw Wielgus
07 Jan 07 |  Europe
In pictures: Archbishop quits
07 Jan 07 |  In Pictures
Country profile: Poland
25 Sep 06 |  Country profiles
Pope's gift to native Poland
05 Apr 05 |  Europe

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