New archbishop resigns in Warsaw

Before inauguration, admits collaboration with secret police

January 08, 2007|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Ela Kasprzycka | Jeffrey Fleishman and Ela Kasprzycka,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WARSAW, Poland -- A national drama that embarrassed the Roman Catholic Church and roused Cold War memories ended in a spectacle yesterday when the new archbishop of Warsaw resigned before his Inauguration Mass after admitting that he collaborated with Communist secret police decades ago.

The Vatican quickly accepted the resignation of the Most Rev. Stanislaw Wielgus, who waited until hours before the ceremony in St. John's Cathedral before capitulating to public pressure to step down.

Pope Benedict XVI, who until last week supported the archbishop, asked Wielgus' predecessor, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, to act as a temporary replacement.

Polish radio reported that the pope urged Wielgus to relinquish his post after he did not fully disclose his relationship with the former communist state. Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio that Wielgus' behavior "in past years during the communist regime in Poland gravely compromised his authority."

Lombardi added that Wielgus made the right decision to resign "despite his moving and humble request for forgiveness."

The religious and political furor around Wielgus has shaken this overwhelmingly Catholic nation. The Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II, a native Pole, eloquently defied decades of communist oppression. Glemp also has been revered as an anti-communist, and his reinstallation was viewed as a move to bolster the image of the country's Catholic leadership.

The televised scene in the cathedral yesterday was mesmerizing. Wearing a miter and gold vestments, Wielgus stood before a congregation of dignitaries and friends, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski. With a pained expression, the archbishop, who had reportedly spent the night consulting with Vatican officials, read from the letter of resignation he sent to the pope.

"After reflecting deeply and assessing my personal situation," Wielgus read, "I submit to the hands of Your Holiness my resignation from the post of archbishop of Warsaw."

Some people in the church cheered; others shouted, "No, no, stay with us."

Friday, the 67-year-old archbishop admitted that he had "harmed the church" by his association with secret service agents, which began in the late 1960s and was formalized in 1978 when he signed a document while seeking permission to travel to Germany.

He added: "I confess to the mistake by me years ago, just as I have confessed to the Holy Father."

He insisted, however, that "I never informed on anyone and never tried to hurt anyone."

The archbishop's entanglement was reported in the media shortly after the Vatican selected him in early December. A review of communist-era files by Poland's Catholic Church Historical Commission concluded: "There are numerous, substantial documents confirming Stanislaw Wielgus' willingness for a conscious and secret cooperation with the Communist security forces."

Commentators said the passions around Wielgus revealed the deep divisions within a church that for Poles symbolizes both religious faith and national identity. The case represents the sensitivity former Eastern Bloc countries have faced since communism collapsed in 1989.

Secret police across Eastern Europe kept hundreds of thousands of files on collaborators, many of whom never spied for the state but were nonetheless tainted. The disclosures around Wielgus came as Poland's center-right, populist government seeks to expose former communist sympathizers.

Glemp said he was troubled that documents from decades ago, when interpreted through the prism of today's Poland, may have unfairly characterized a fellow clergyman.

"A judgment has been passed on Archbishop Wielgus," Glemp told the congregation. "What kind of judgment is that, on the basis of a couple pieces of paper, photocopied three times over?"

Historians say about 10 percent of Polish priests cooperated with communist agents, including the Rev. Mieczyslaw Malinski, who had close ties to Pope John Paul II.

Jeffrey Fleishman and Ela Kasprzycka write for the Los Angeles Times.

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