January 21, 2007 / 10:28 AM / 12 years ago

Polish church spying scandal seen damaging to Pope

ROME (Reuters) - The resignation of Warsaw’s archbishop, who reluctantly admitted spying for Poland’s former communist rulers, is a blow to Pope Benedict who gave him his backing in the face of a rising tide of allegations.

Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus resigned on Sunday, just hours before a ceremony to mark his swearing in, after a Church commission found he had collaborated with Poland’s communist era secret services, something he had consistently denied.

“This is the biggest crisis to affect the Polish Church for a generation. It’s an absolutely drastic turn of events,” said Jonathan Luxmoore, a reporter on Church affairs who lived for several years in the country.

While the scandal plunges the Polish Church into a period of uncertainty, it will have a knock-on effect on the Pope who appointed Wielgus on December 6 and stood by him to the last minute.

As Polish media produced mounting evidence of the cleric’s relations with the communist government, the Vatican said the Pope had chosen him “in full knowledge of the facts” of his past.

“It’s very unfortunate for Benedict, it looks like he owes the Polish Church an apology because it happened on his watch,” said religious commentator Clifford Longley. “It’s done the Polish Church considerable harm.”

Soon after his appointment, Polish media reported that Wielgus had informed on fellow clerics for about 20 years from the late 1960s. Colleagues rallied around to deny the reports, often noting that he enjoyed the Pope’s personal backing.

“Either the Pope was reckless in the appointment because he hadn’t fully established the information about the person, or he was morally questionable in that he went ahead with the appointment in full knowledge of the background,” Luxmoore said.

“The Pope could be damaged by this, I can’t see it any other way.”

“WAVE OF ATTACKS”

The Vatican accused the Polish Church’s opponents of vindictively dragging up Wielgus’s past. Spokesman Federico Lombardi blamed a “strange alliance between the persecutors of the past and their adversaries” for a “wave of attacks”.

But Luxmoore said such a response was inadequate, and compared the incident to the sex abuse scandal which hit the Catholic Church in the United States.

“In a way it is comparable to the sex abuse crisis and the response will need to be the same as the western Church’s response to sex abuse. They didn’t try to deny it and bury it, they did come clean about it and confront it.”

The scandal could also taint the Catholic Church’s traditional image as a bulwark against communist oppression, an image personified by Benedict’s predecessor, Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who campaigned against Soviet-era totalitarianism.

“We have been accustomed to seeing the Church as this seamless robe of heroism and sanctity which could never be faulted anywhere,” said Luxmoore.

“It has to be seen much more as an institution which played a critically important role in the defense of human rights, in defense of moral values under communist rule, but nevertheless was not perfect by any means.”

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