The National Catholic Review
Jane Leftwich Curry

"What kind of judgment is one based on scraps of paper copied three times? We do not want such judgments.” So said Cardinal Josef Glemp to the crowd that filled Warsaw Cathedral after Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus announced his resignation on Jan. 6, moments before the celebration of his installation as Archbishop and Primate of Poland was to begin. Some cheered that “another Communist informer” had been outed, while others “booed” what they saw as a rush to condemn. In a statement the day before, Wielgus admitted only that he had signed an agreement to report what he did abroad and that he had previously lied about these activities. This followed the publication of documents from his secret police file in a right-wing Polish daily (Gazeta Polska) in mid-December. A small team of scholars at the Institute of National Memory, though, examined his secret police file and found evidence that he had done far more than just sign an agreement to report upon his return what he had done.

 

For the Catholic Church and for Polish politics, the answer to Glemp’s question is not a simple one. Indeed, nearly 18 years after Communism’s collapse, the question of how Poland should deal with its Communist past has become more significant than the country’s growing economic and social problems. Most Poles are losing interest in what politicians say about each other’s past. Poles have heard these stories for decades—but few ever expected that so many priests were informers.

In this, one of the largest and most Catholic countries in Europe (where, according to a recent survey, 95 percent of the population claim to be Catholic believers), the church long enjoyed stature for being the bulwark against Communism in Poland. Going to church was, for most Poles, not just a matter of the soul, but a political act of opposition. The church was a haven. After martial law was declared in 1981 and Poland’s economy collapsed, the churches provided food and clothing from the West to those in need. Priests were courageous leaders.

But now that Communism has fallen, the church is in a double bind: acknowledging that some priests worked with the police erodes its public image, as does claiming that priests should be treated differently than regular citizens who informed.

The Church and Lustration

Most Poles do not agree with the new “lustration” law (the process of identifying and purging former Communist agents), which requires people who held positions in education, journalism, law and government (over 60,000 in all) to prove that they did not work as secret agents, informing on those around them. Yet in a public opinion poll conducted after the Wielgus resignation, 72 percent of Poles said priests in active service should have their past reviewed to see whether they were ever involved with the secret police (CBPS, “Kosciol wobec Lustracja” Feb. 2007).

If the secret police’s own statistics are correct, some 10 to 15 percent of priests were at some time and in some way listed as “secret agents,” who met with a secret policeman at some point during the 40 years of Communist rule. Initially, the Polish church avoided the subject. Soon after the collapse of Communism, Pope John Paul II encouraged offering forgiveness for priests and nuns who had informed or made compromises under Communism. The pope and virtually all of Poland’s bishops (there are currently 165) never agreed to any “secret” work with the Communists, although Karol Wojtyla had met with Communist officials and worked out agreements both as Archbishop of Krakow and as pope. He also must have known that some in his circles had informed on him. As the rumors about informants began to circulate, many felt it would hurt the pope, then in his last years of life, to open the books on priests who had informed on others.

The church avoided the debate until the summer of 2006, when the Polish government passed the law that required people in and out of politics to be reviewed, made individuals’ files public and phased out the appeals process for people accused of being agents. The church’s hand was forced by media reports and by public questions about whether the lustration law should apply to clergy in positions like school director or academic.

Last summer, when the first dramatic revelations were made, church leaders took the position that priests should not have to go through the same process as others. Instead, they argued, priests should be able to make their own private confessions and be forgiven. Priests who wanted to “air the church’s dirty linen” were told to stop digging in the files and talking publicly. But stories of priests who served as Communist informers make good newspaper copy, and Wielgus’s case is not the only one. The accusations forced the church to open investigations in all of its 44 dioceses. But proving or disproving the accusations has been difficult. The result has been much fingerpointing but little factual certainty.

Miles of Files

Complicating the matter further is the fact that these files were produced by the secret police who, even now, are protected from being investigated themselves. Indeed many who did not retire are still working in the state security forces. They were masters of deception and held the “carrots and sticks” of rewards and threats. Even if the documents are complete, the contents contain no guarantee of accuracy, particularly the typed reports of conversations with informers, which (unlike handwritten statements) could be easily forged. The police, after all, had high quotas to meet.

In 1989, when Communism collapsed in Central and East Europe, 50 miles of files were moved from police offices around the country to the Institute for National Memory. But by 1999, 90 percent of those files had been destroyed or had disappeared, according to those who have worked in the archives. Some say police used the intervening time to “doctor” the files of politicians in the new Poland by removing documents or adding to them. One prominent Polish bishop, Miroslaw Zycinski, the Archbishop of Lublin, reported to the press that he had been offered the church’s files “for a price” by a former secret police employee only two years ago.

What survived can hardly be the complete record of the 1.5 million “agents” claimed by the secret police between 1948 and 1989. In the six months between the creation of a new, largely non-Communist government in summer 1989 and the resignation of the Communist minister of interior, Czeslaw Kiszczak, Kiszczak ordered Department IV, which was responsible for dealing with the Catholic Church, to destroy all its files. His goal, Kiszczak has said to many (including me), was to ensure that “Poland still had some institution that could be respected when Communism fell.” But records survived on microfilm, in the victims’ files and cross-referenced in other departments. The evidence against Archbishop Wielgus, for instance, survived in the department that handled international intelligence.

Piecing together fully who did what from the “files” is no simple matter and may never be possible. Some of the agreements to work for the secret police survive in their original form, while others survive only on microfilm. That makes it hard to verify the signatures. The agreements themselves give no indication of what people actually did. Some files include handwritten reports from informants about people they knew or discussions they heard. Other documents are reports typed by police of what they claim they were told by “agents,” individuals shielded by pseudonyms. Often there is no way to prove that what the police typed is what the “secret agent” actually said. Files also include bills for presents, for a lunch, for information and for time at secret police “safe apartments,” to which agents were taken for conversations. If these records were destroyed, there is still a list of persons seen as “potential secret agents” or “secret agents” and reports in the files of those they betrayed.

A Complicated Game

Such documents come from another time, when people’s options were determined in large part by the government. The Polish Catholic Church played a complicated game with the Communist authorities by going along just enough to keep its privileges but not enough to lose its status as a major opponent of Communism and supporter of Solidarity.

Being a “secret agent” meant different things to different people. It was not hard to be designated a “secret agent” by an official of the Ministry of Interior. In some time periods, individuals who wanted to study abroad could secure a passport only if they signed a promise to report what they did and with whom. Wielgus’s contacts began in 1973, when he received a fellowship to study theology in Munich. The trade-off, for him and many others, seemed a simple, safe compromise. By going abroad, they could help their families or get an education. Most who signed provided no more information than where they had gone and descriptions of the places they had visited—information so trivial and public it was not worth their handlers’ time. Some “secret agents,” though, continued to give information and to look for specifics requested by their handlers. The documents from Wielgus’s file that were published and reviewed by specialists from the Institute of National Memory and the church indicate he met with the police over 50 times and reported both in Poland and while he was in Germany and Austria.

Some “agents” used their handlers. One priest admitted to informing on other priests in exchange for being allowed to get building materials to build a new church—a near impossibility in those days. Others, including the Catholic dissident Krzystof Kozlowski, who became the first non-Communist to lead the Ministry of Interior, used their contacts to obtain information. Kozlowski would talk to the secret police and immediately go back to the editor of his Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, to report what the police asked and what he told them. In this way the staff indirectly learned what the elite, or at least the police, worried about. For some who did this, there is now no way to prove that they informed but kept no secrets.

Both the dissident movement, which from the 1950’s on was larger in Poland than anywhere else in the Communist world, and the Catholic Church were regarded as threats to Communist rule. That was where agents were needed. Knowing what “the enemy” was doing was only part of the game. That was the easiest part: the secret police had the technology and people to bug offices, homes and telephones. They read the mail of anyone they deemed suspicious and regularly followed dissidents, foreigners and others.

Little in the files that have thus far become public is “top secret” or much above gossip. The point was to frighten and divide people, to disgrace them and weaken their power, and to find out who might be vulnerable enough to agree to inform. Files of priest-agents show they were asked about the atmosphere in their group and conversations. Less often, remarkably, were they asked to obtain documents or report on political discussions. In none of the cases that have become public did priests report on confessions or their parishioners.

Whoever informed became implicated. Not knowing who was an agent or whether you were watched meant people were less willing to take risks or to talk about what they thought.

The secret police were not able to use the information they collected to reduce the church’s image as “the good guys.” Ironically, only now, after the fall of Communism, when the fear that pervaded the society has faded, are the revelations of police reports—report after report after report—damaging the church.

Wyszynski’s Historic Compromises

For the Polish Catholic hierarchy, the end of Communism represented a victory in their game with the Communist authorities. In 1956, when Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was released from solitary confinement in a monastery, the Vatican directed him to compromise with the Communist authorities to keep the church alive and prevent the “Chinese” alternative of a church controlled by the state.

It worked. From 1956 until Communism fell in 1989, religion was accepted by the state. Despite occasional battles, both sides compromised. Some local parish priests, however, refused to compromise with the Communists and supported the dissidents instead. Then in 1978 a Pole became pope. That sealed the church’s power in Poland. Eventually it was the church hierarchy that mediated the conflicts and discussions between Solidarity and the state.

The ‘Worst Five Minutes’

Times are different today. The media are pressing for revelations about clergy agents, the new right-wing government wants to cleanse the country of “betrayers,” and individual priests like Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski have insisted that the church publicly investigate its past. Against his superiors’ order, Zaleski rifled through the files to find which priests in Krakow informed on him. The church’s own reluctance to deal with the situation publicly has increased suspicion and division within. Zaleski was able to publish his book of revelations in February and the church has had to start investigations in all but one of Poland’s dioceses. (The exception is a diocese that was not established until 1992.)

Far from destroying the last remnants of Communist disease and betrayal, the lustration process and the delay in dealing with it threaten to do what the secret police and their Communist bosses wanted to do but could not: deeply damage the legitimacy of the church and the Communist opposition. As Krzystof Kozlowski pointed out, his choice not to punish the secret police and reveal who had been their agents was about “not judging people on the worst five minutes of their lives but by the best 10 minutes.” Sadly it is the church’s worst five minutes that are damaging it now.

New, Wider Spy Law Just Passed

In mid-March, according to a report in The New York Times (3/16), Poland enacted a new law that will replace an earlier law that focused on senior officials and politicians. The new law widens the net of persons needing to be vetted. It stipulates that academics, journalists and government officials born before 1972 (some 300,000 Poles) must declare in a written statement to the Institute of National Remembrance whether they had ever cooperated with the former Communist government as spies. Anyone who did so or whose statements are found to be false will be banned from public life for up to 10 years. Some experts estimate that processing the paperwork for this could take 10 years.

Jane Leftwich Curry, a professor of political science at Santa Clara University, is author of a number of books on Eastern Europe, including three on Poland. She has taught at the University of Warsaw and as recipient of the Fulbright