Warsaw Archbishop Resigns Over Communist Ties

The newly appointed archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, resigns after admitting he spied for Poland's former communist regime. Renee Montagne talks to Emily Harris about this major embarrassment for the Vatican.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Poland's Catholics were stunned yesterday when their newly appointed archbishop announced he'd worked with the secret police in that country's former communist regime. He made the announcement to a shocked congregation during the mass that was originally held to celebrate his formal installation. Just last Friday, Stanislaw Wielgus admitted that he agreed to collaborate with the communist regime. He was fulfilling a request from Pope Benedict in resigning. Pope Benedict had appointed him just one month ago.

We go now to NPR's Emily Harris in Warsaw. Emily, as I said, it was huge surprise, right?

EMILY HARRIS: It was very last minute. There had been some indications on Friday that a resignation might be possible, because when Bishop Wielgus admitted he had had contacts with the secret police during the communist era he also wrote an appeal to Polish Catholics saying that he was, quote, “standing on a threshold of the Warsaw Cathedral with a heavy dilemma of conscience.” And he said he would do whatever the pope wanted him to do.

But the Vatican then only announced the resignation on Sunday, shortly before the ceremony to formally install Wielgus was to begin. That had already trickled out to at least a journalist attending the event, so some of the people in the audience may have known as well. But it was unclear until he walked in whether he would even appear. And it was quite dramatic when he came forward and read his short statement that he would not take the post of archbishop of Warsaw.

MONTAGNE: Well, the population of Catholics in Poland is one of the largest in all of Europe. What's been the reaction there?

HARRIS: The initial reaction in the church, which was largely supporters of Bishop Wielgus, was very negative and angry about the resignation. The congregations started yelling no and stay with us. And then during the mass, right afterwards, it basically took the place of the installation ceremony.

The archbishop who was to be replaced Jozef Glemp, defended Wielgus very, very strongly. He said that the domestic intelligence services during communist times penetrated all parts of society and they had targeted the church in particular. Glemp also dismissed the documentation of Bishop Wielgus's agreements to inform and (unintelligible) copies of worthless scraps of paper.

But Glemp also said, using an allegory about shepherding the flock, that it would have been hard for Wielgus to lead given this storm over his past and that the church took that into consideration. And in general here, it does seem that many Poles are quite relieved that Wielgus will not take that post, that that's the best outcome of this difficult situation.

MONTAGNE: Well, his links to the communist government seem a little confused. So why weren't they known before?

HARRIS: Well, one reason is that the files here, the archive files of the secret police during the communist era, are not generally open to the public. It's not totally clear what exactly the Vatican knew and when. It seems from some statements from the church and from the bishop that his background was known to the Vatican, although possibly not until after the appointment in early December.

The way this came in to the public was that a newspaper here was given some documents by a person they won't identify that describes Wielgus's association with the secret services. When they got them about two weeks after his initial appointment, they published allegations without the documents, and that triggered investigations by the church and by the government.

And then the documents themselves were published last week. These documents are mostly reports about Wielgus by secret service agent, describing him and his demeanor and what he agreed to do. There is a document that he signed that says he agrees to inform about institutions and Polish people abroad when he went abroad. And he said that he had to sign that to get permission from the government to go abroad during the communist era. And he maintains that he did not hurt anybody with anything that he did.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, the church had acted as quite a courageous opponent of communism in Poland. That his reputation, that's the sense of history. Is this crisis for the church there over now that this archbishop has resigned?

HARRIS: No, because although that is the general history of the church, it's not an entirely true one. There were collaborators among the priest, and some historians estimate maybe about 10 percent. The big question now is how deeply should those be exposed? How much effort should be put into finding out exactly which church leaders did what when? And of course there's still the question of who is going to be nominated the next archbishop of Warsaw.

MONTAGNE: Emily, thanks very much. NPR's Emily Harris in Warsaw on the abrupt resignation of the Catholic archbishop there.

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