January 21, 2007 / 10:51 AM / 12 years ago

Second Polish cleric resigns over communist links

WARSAW (Reuters) - A second Polish cleric resigned on Monday, underscoring a crisis in Poland’s powerful Roman Catholic Church over how many of its members spied for the authorities during the communist era.

Polish media and church officials welcomed the resignation of Stanislaw Wielgus during a mass on Sunday to mark his appointment as archbishop of Warsaw.

Wielgus admitting working for the communist-era police and Janusz Bielanski, chief priest at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, resigned on Monday following accusations he had also cooperated with the police under the Soviet-backed government.

The cathedral is one of Poland’s most important churches. Polish-born Pope John Paul II said his first mass there early in his career in 1947.

“The Wielgus case made clear there is no escape from the past,” said Kazimierz Sowa, a prominent Catholic priest and journalist. “We are already seeing that with father Bielanski.”

Poland’s Church supported the pro-democracy movement, which drew inspiration from Pope John Paul and toppled the communist government in 1989.

Wielgus resigned at the request of Pope Benedict who appointed him just a month ago and church leaders, who had become increasingly embarrassed about the case, expressed gratitude to the Pontiff.

“The holy father chose the best solution,” Polish Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, head of a commission on relations between Poland’s clergy and the Vatican, told Rzeczpospolita newspaper.

The media widely echoed Pieronek’s comments. Rzeczpospolita daily ran a front-page story on Wielgus’s resignation under the headline “Rescue from Rome” and another daily, Dziennik said “The Pope saved the Church from shame.”

VATICAN UNAWARE

The Pope, who had defended Wielgus in the face of a rising tide of accusations, did not know Wielgus had spied for communist police when he nominated him last month, a senior cardinal said.

“When Monsignor Wielgus was nominated, we did not know anything about his collaboration,” Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Corriere della Sera newspaper. A senior Vatican source later confirmed Battista Re had made the comments.

Poland is still learning about the extent of the communist secret service’s web of informants 18 years after the regime collapsed, ushering in democracy and free market economics.

Poland’s ruling twins, President Lech Kaczynski and his brother Jaroslaw, the prime minister, came to power last year promising to root out those in public life with close ties to the former communist apparatus.

Some say their drive has also created pressure on the Church, which had until recent years been above suspicion, to investigate the archives and name clergy who were informants.

Some churchmen say the time is ripe to face up to the past and believe the Wielgus affair could serve as a catalyst of change.

“I’m convinced that the case of bishop Wielgus will have a cleansing effect and may even speed up certain processes (of change),” prominent Polish bishop Tadeusz Goclowski said.

“We mustn’t be afraid, and up to now the Church in Poland was a little afraid of this issue.”

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Vatican City and Barbara Sladkowska in Warsaw

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