Past of spying haunts Poland’s church

Times Staff Writer

The priest is gray-haired but still strong, black vestments tight across his chest. He walks briskly in the cold morning light, remembering when the communist secret police slipped in amid the faithful and tried to turn him into a spy.

“The secret police were always in our lives,” said Father Jerzy Szlezak. “They promised me a job if I wouldn’t go into the seminary. Then when I was a priest, they told me not to read the bishop’s letters to my congregation.... I didn’t relent.”

Many clerics in Poland’s Roman Catholic Church, however, did submit. Long revered for defying the former communist regime, the church today is enmeshed in a scandal of code names and secret meetings listed in thousands of files detailing how priests, monks and bishops succumbed to temptation and intimidation. It is an unsettling time in a nation where even on weekdays hands dip into holy water and rosaries rattle in pews.


The recent series of revelations came last month when Warsaw Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus resigned hours before his inauguration Mass after admitting that he had collaborated with communist agents decades ago.

The drama unfolded amid a campaign by Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski to expose and punish the former agents and officials in a spy network that left behind an extensive document trail.

Gripped by identity crisis

Unlike other former communist nations, Poland has yet to reconcile Cold War injustices and ease the bitterness between informers and victims more than 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also gripped by an identity crisis marked by a widening divide between conservatives and liberals in a church reluctant to deal with its past while it struggles to fill a leadership vacuum left by the 2005 death of countryman Pope John Paul II.

Catholicism equates to patriotism in this country; that is why the communists sought to infiltrate the church, and why the recent disclosure of documents from generations ago has sparked such agonizing.

“I think the opening of the files should have been done right away,” said Zbigniew Nosowski, editor of the Catholic monthly Wiez. “The Germans did it with the Stasi secret police files, and it was much less painful than what is now happening in Poland.”

The files, some brittle and sepia-toned, others stored on microfilm, are the stuff of lingering intrigue. In 1989 and 1990, truckloads of documents from the Interior Ministry’s Department Four, which spied on bishops and kept surveillance on seminarians, were burned in pits outside many of Poland’s cities. Some collaborators, including priests, were allowed to shred their files in the waning days of communist control.

“The decision to destroy the documents was made [by security officials] because Poland had normalized relations with the church and our holy war with the Vatican was over,” said a former ranking intelligence official with knowledge of the documents. He estimated that about 15% of clerics were collaborators. “Some felt there should be no trace of it.”

But names of church conspirators weren’t entirely expunged. Many were cross-referenced in other intelligence files that survived and are now under the jurisdiction of the Institute of National Remembrance. The paper trail, which surprised church officials, is a testament to the fanatical bureaucracy of a communist state that tried to seduce some clerics with money and women or to expose homosexuality and other career-ending secrets.

“You can expect there will be more revelations about the church, more interesting ones than Wielgus,” said the former intelligence official, who asked not to be named for fear of facing criminal charges. “There were two books that were not destroyed. One had the name of the person and brief biographical information. The second book identified people as informers or potential informers, and from these books you can find out who was cooperating with the state.”

Thirty-nine names, including those of three bishops, are expected to be revealed next month in a book by the Rev. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, who runs a charity near Krakow. He and others, including historians, say the church has avoided examining its history for fear of damaging the institution’s standing, along with the Solidarity trade union, as a buttress against communism. Analysts say the Polish church also hid its involvement out of respect for John Paul.

“The church is now in a very difficult situation,” said Andrzej Paczkowski, a historian and member of a layman’s committee that investigated Wielgus. “History is always revised. Each generation has its own vision. The church previously had two phases, that of martyr and that of victor. Now there’s a third phase, that of collaborator.”

Since the Wielgus revelation, the church has begun an investigation of the clergy and has promised it will hide nothing. It is reminding followers -- 95% of Poles are Catholic -- of the bravery and resistance to the state articulated by thousands of parish priests and by John Paul and former Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who is regarded as a hero.

“We helped build democracy in this country,” said the Rev. Jozef Kloch, a spokesman for the Warsaw episcopate. “So why is the church the first one to go through this screening process? Why is the church questioned so much and not the pasts of government officials, politicians, judges and journalists?”

No revisiting the past

After the collapse of communism, the new government decided not to revisit the past for fear recriminations would damage the country. The decision allowed intelligence agents and informers to slip into business and government, and communists to reinvent themselves as reform politicians.

But files and motivations from the past are playing into an array of vendettas and political agendas, schemes the populist prime minister wants to stem with a “lustration” law enacted in December to open communist-era secret police files to public scrutiny.

“We have to make the nation aware of who was the victim and who was the hangman,” Kaczynski recently told the Polish media. “It’s time to start dealing with the hangman.”

The Institute of National Remembrance plans to make communist-era files, mainly pored over now by academics, more accessible to the public. This would lessen the likelihood of leaks that over the years have been used to try to sully reputations of prominent figures, including onetime Solidarity leader and former President Lech Walesa.

Church conservatives say the Wielgus case is an example of how files can be selectively used to taint individuals.

“The scandal does threaten the church, but it also gives the impression the church is under attack by its known enemies, including leftists,” said Stanislaw Michalkiewicz, a writer and commentator who appears on the ultraconservative Radio Maria. “I’m almost certain there’s a conspiracy.

“During John Paul II’s life, there was not a single incident with church security files. Then immediately after his death, a file emerges alleging that Father Konrad Hejmo was a collaborator,” he said, referring to a friend of the late pope. “It was a warning.”

Hejmo, who was assigned to the Vatican, has denied the accusations.

But many Catholics blame the church for circumspection about the past and disclosing information only when scandal erupts.

‘Not confessing its sins’

This troubled Karolina Szymbor, a university student who stopped on her way to class to pray in a Warsaw church. She said most Poles would have forgiven Wielgus if he had admitted his collaboration rather than issue a string of denials until the Vatican forced him to resign.

“I can’t understand why the church is not confessing its sins. This is a contradiction for a faith that says sinners receive mercy,” she said, wrapped in a scarf and standing in the rain. “I am disappointed in the church leadership, but the problem is now only the dark side is being shown and not the church’s many years of standing against communism.”

Father Szlezak is of another era, but of similar sentiment. He is no longer pastor at St. Bartholomew’s, the church in western Poland that communist authorities prevented him building for years as punishment for not collaborating. These days he can be found at Warsaw’s Church of the Sacred Cross, where the other day a nun glided across marble near the sacristy and a woman in a leopard-skin coat made the sign of the cross and slipped out a side door.

Szlezak was taking the garbage out, stepping through a black gate beyond the rectory, the cold making his eyes water.

“It’s good to show what the past was,” he said. “I don’t think there is a threat to the church, but no one expected it to turn out this way. This is something we have to live through.”

He closed the gate and remembered: “The communists wanted to destroy the church, to make it disappear. When we finally built St. Bartholomew’s, and had the ceiling painted, we had a celebration. It was something. The cardinal and Lech Walesa were at the opening procession.”

He turned, walked up the stairs and stepped into the nave, where a man, cap in hand, knelt on the stone and prayed.