Polish priest spy scandal sends shockwaves through Catholic Central Europe
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.
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 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.