Polish priest spy scandal sends shockwaves through Catholic Central Europe

Stanislaw Wielgus, photo: CTK

Poland was rocked to its foundations this weekend, when the newly-appointed Archbishop of Warsaw Stanislaw Wielgus was forced to resign after admitting he knowingly collaborated with the communist secret police. Poland is of course a staunchly Catholic nation, but the shockwaves of the Wielgus case can be felt throughout the former communist bloc.

Stanislaw Wielgus,  photo: CTK
The Catholic Church is deeply revered in Poland for its role in opposing communism. The revelations, therefore, have come as a deep shock to Polish society. But how will they be received here in the Czech Republic?

Czechs are often described as Europe's most agnostic nation. The Catholic Church, however, is still the country's largest religious denomination, with some three million devotees. Tomas Halik, a former dissident and member of the so-called "underground church" during communism, was secretly ordained as a Catholic priest in Germany. He says the secret police made several attempts to persuade him to collaborate during the communist era.

Tomas Halik
"I was interrogated several times, and it was an extremely important personal experience for me. The interrogation was a sort of X-ray, where they tried to find out what you wanted out of life, whether you longed for a career, or the chance to travel. And on the other hand it was also a way of finding out what you were afraid of. So on one hand they offered me a prestigious teaching post at a university, and on the other they suggested that if I didn't co-operate, something might happen to my family. After 1989 I got the chance to look at my secret police file, and it seems that after a while they came to the conclusion that I wouldn't be blackmailed, frightened or bribed, so they gave up."

Tomas Halik says his refusal to collaborate does not give him the right to judge the actions of others, stressing that he was never tortured or imprisoned for his beliefs. However he does believe the Wielgus case has been an important cathartic process for Polish Catholicism.

There have been several high profile cases here in the Czech Republic. One of the most notable was in 2004, when the General Secretary of the Czech Bishops Conference, Karel Simandl, resigned after admitting he knowingly collaborated with the secret police. But Martin Horalek, spokesman of the Bishops Conference, told Radio Prague the Czech Roman Catholic Church judged each case on an individual basis.

"The most important thing is to differentiate between individual cases. So in one case you might have a priest who succumbed to enormous systematic pressure and signed a formal agreement on collaboration with the secret police, but never actually informed on anyone. In another - and this was the case with Monsignor Simandl - a person entered the Church as an agent of the secret police, with the explicit aim of informing on his colleagues."

The head of the Czech Catholic Church, Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, has welcomed Monsignor Wielgus's decision to step down. Martin Horalek said the Czech Bishops Conference did not wish to draw comparisons between Poland and the Czech Republic, saying the role of the Catholic Church in the two countries was and remains utterly different. In that he is right. But the Wielgus case is still a reminder of the long shadow cast over Central and Eastern Europe by totalitarian communist regimes.