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Polish church faces questions about role under communism

Warsaw, Poland

When a group of Polish bishops met the pope during a mid-March pilgrimage to Rome, the air was thick with praise for the church’s role in John Paul II’s homeland. Yet this image could soon be shaken, as evidence comes to light about less heroic aspects of the church’s past.

Thirteen years after communist rule collapsed, a much-predicted fall in Mass attendance hasn’t materialized. Priestly vocations have even risen, and opinion polls show respect for the church’s leaders.

Yet the Polish church’s inscrutable facade has been dented by negative publicity, including charges of sex abuse by clergy and misuse of church funds. But the most serious problem for the church and its image in Polish society could arise from the questions being asked about the church’s role during the communist period.

“Much now depends on how church people react,” commented Jesuit Fr. Dariusz Kowalczyk.

“If they tackle these problems honestly, the church’s authority could even increase, since it’ll emerge as a community with enough internal strength to confess its faults. However, if it lacks this inner strength, it could be forced to cleanse itself by harsh and painful criticism.”

The Jesuit was reacting to media claims that a Polish archbishop, Juliusz Paetz, had sexually molested seminarians in his western Poznan archdiocese. Paetz, who denies the accusations, announced his resignation March 28.

The scandal over the archbishop hasn’t been the only setback in recent months.

In February, a Salesian priest was arrested on charges of embezzling $20 million from a bank in Legnica, while in January, another priest was beaten by parishioners after being accused of misusing church funds.

In spring 2001, sex abuse investigations against a priest from Tylawa were dropped at the urging of his archbishop. This January, an ex-priest from Lodz was ordered to apologize by a court after accusing his archdiocese in a newspaper article of using charity funds to bankroll “episcopal extravaganzas.”

Most important, new questions are being asked about the Polish church’s role under communism, and whether its flawless image as a defender of freedom was warranted.

Communist rule was imposed in Soviet-occupied Poland after World War II and lasted till 1989. The Catholic church, to which 95 percent of Poles belong, defended human rights through the long years and won concessions for itself for calming popular frustrations.

Yet the minutes of a church-state commission, published in the mid-1990s, suggested negotiators from both sides had cooperated amicably, especially after the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980.

Potential embarrassments could be even greater in the murky world of agents and informers.

Up to 10 percent of Catholic priests are believed to have collaborated with a communist-controlled “Patriot Priests” organization during the post-war Stalinist period, while surviving archives suggest as many as one in four was “in contact” with Poland’s secret police, the SB.

In a letter a year ago to Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza daily, a former interior minister, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, said he had agreed to the destruction of documents “presenting many clergy in an unfavorable light” when church-state relations were normalized in 1989.

But “two thick files” survived in the Interior Ministry, Kiszczak added. One of them “contained names.”

Andrzej Grajewski, a Catholic historian, believes SB recruitment intensified in the stormy 1980s, when some priests acted as informers while denouncing communism from their pulpits. He estimates the secret police operated 200 church agents in each of Poland’s 22 counties, and that several still hold senior church posts and are vulnerable to blackmail.

The church would be wise to collect the facts itself, Grajewski argues, before they’re revealed by “sensation-seekers.”

“Though the heroic resisters were more numerous, there were also traitors in the church,” the historian told NCR. “Since they’re guilty of grave sins against society, they should apologize and accept the consequences. People who collaborated shouldn’t be holding important church positions.”

Church leaders elsewhere in Eastern Europe have attempted to weed out former agents.

In the Czech Republic, priest-collaborators were suspended or transferred to remote parishes after 1989, while in former East Germany the church set up a commission to study agent lists from Stasi secret police archives.

In Poland, however, church leaders have been unwilling to confront the issue.

In 1993, the bishops’ conference branded collaboration a “sin against the nation.” Meanwhile, in May 2001, Poland’s Catholic primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, publicly admitted some priests had been “importuned or blackmailed” while others had shown a “far-reaching loyalty” to communist power “for the sake of a quiet life or a few wretched coins.”

Yet although SB files are now being opened by a newly created National Remembrance Institute, church leaders have been more interested in what they reveal about the glory of Catholic martyrdom than the shame of Catholic collaboration. “Our church isn’t afraid of a good historical analysis, which would present the truth in both light and shadow,” said Jesuit Fr. Adam Szulc, spokesman for the Polish Bishops’ Conference.

“But the Polish church was the engine of change, which led to the recovery of freedom throughout Eastern Europe. Let’s deal with the facts, rather than just looking for holes in a seamless garment.”

Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer living in Warsaw.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002