The crisis in the Polish church, involving the reported collaboration of 10 percent to 15 percent of its clergy with the security forces of the former communist government, bears an unpleasant resemblance to the sexual-abuse scandal that erupted in the United States five years ago.
In both cases, it was the media that first exposed the corruption that church officials had been covering up to avoid scandal and damage to the reputation of the church and its priesthood. Initial denials were later refuted by the disclosure of evidence to the contrary.
What follows are the basic facts in the case:
Bishop of Plock Stanislaw Wielgus, who had been appointed by Pope John Paul II, was named by Pope Benedict XVI to succeed Cardinal Jozef Glemp as Archbishop of Warsaw and primate of Poland.
He took the canonical oath of office on Jan. 5 and became at that moment the Archbishop of Warsaw. He was to be formally installed in the Warsaw cathedral Jan. 7.
At that Mass, Archbishop Wielgus announced his resignation from office, having tendered it to the Vatican shortly beforehand. Pope Benedict XVI, who had previously expressed “every confidence” in Archbishop Wielgus, had immediately accepted the resignation, and Cardinal Glemp was ordered to continue in office as interim archbishop.
Hereafter, there are conflicting interpretations of various elements of the story.
What seems clear is that then-Father Wielgus had been involved with communist Poland’s security service (known as the SB, an abbreviation for “Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa”) since the early 1970s, when he applied to the government for permission to study at the University of Munich. In return for this permission, he signed a document pledging cooperation with the SB, a relationship that apparently continued until the end of communist rule.
Although he admitted to Vatican officials some details of his past and, he claims, to Pope Benedict himself before being appointed to Warsaw, he evidently did not reveal everything, having been assured, it is said, that all relevant documents had been destroyed.
According to The New York Times, “Many believed that the pope changed his mind after personally reviewing the documents in question or at the urging of Polish government officials” (1/8/07).
But who was at fault in making the appointment in the first place? Archbishop Wielgus insists that he revealed everything about his past to Vatican officials, including the pope. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and the Vatican nuncio to Poland both attested that Archbishop Wielgus denied allegations of wrongdoing. Remarkably, they seemed to have accepted his denials at face-value.
Only after the dramatic public resignation did Cardinal Re deny that Archbishop Wielgus had disclosed details of his past association with the secret police (Associated Press, 1/12/07).
Perhaps the most surprising item to emerge in this story is that Pope John Paul II himself, a fierce opponent of communist rule in Poland, had known for years about the collaboration of clergy with the security service and, as in the sexual-abuse crisis, chose not to address it head-on.
Was Stanislaw Wielgus the choice of John Paul II before he died, or, as Rome reporter Marco Politi insists, was he Benedict XVI’s personal choice, in spite of his general knowledge of the bishop’s background? This is only one of many questions that remain to be answered.
Everything will eventually come to light, just as it did in the sexual-abuse scandal.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.