Europe's Church, Communism Ties Not Rare

The resignation of Warsaw's new archbishop for cooperating with Poland's despised communist-era secret police shocked his country and the Vatican.

WARSAW, Poland (AP) - The resignation of Warsaw's new archbishop for cooperating with Poland's despised communist-era secret police shocked his country and the Vatican — but there are signs such collaboration may have been a fact of life under communism around Eastern Europe.

Records released in recent years allege involvement by dozens of priests — including two bishops in the Czech Republic and even the retired primate of Hungary, who voted in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.

Nor was the Roman Catholic Church alone. Orthodox and Protestant clergy have also been suspected of collaborating.

When then Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu demolished churches in Bucharest in the 1980s, Orthodox Patriarch Teoctist did not criticize the action, leading to accusations that he was too close to the communist regime.

"It was a system based on terror and ideology that used every means against the church and the faith," said Bishop Szczepan Wesoly, rector of the Polish church in Rome and an aide to the late Polish pope, John Paul II.

"It's like a disease, it develops and gets worse. The disease should have been treated much earlier," said the Rev. Tadeusz Isakowic-Zaleski, who has written a book on the Polish secret police repression of the church in Krakow and accuses Catholic leaders of dragging their feet in dealing with compromised priests.

Secret police officers "took advantage of a priest's personal ambitions — academic career, career in the church — preying on human weaknesses," said Marek Lasota, a historian with the Institute of National Remembrance.

Such was the case of the fallen Warsaw Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus, who the secret police coerced into signing a document to cooperate when he was trying to get a passport to travel to West Germany for academic reasons.

The condition was "widespread in that period in the Eastern bloc countries," the retired longtime Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, wrote this week in Rome's La Repubblica newspaper.

Navarro-Valls said the reality was "very clear" to Karol Wojtyla before he became pope, but he insisted John Paul "would never have accepted any compromise with the communist regime."

Wielgus was in line to become primate of Poland, a position once held by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who was jailed by the communists.

Polish historians estimate 10 percent to 15 percent of the 25,000 clergymen in Poland, the Roman Catholic bastion in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, cooperated with the secret police.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the Polish church was the "victim of abuse, forced to live in moments of uncertainty, even compromise."

It was apparently not alone.

Last year, historian Krisztian Ungvary said he found evidence in Hungary's secret police archives that Cardinal Laszlo Paskai collaborated with the communist-era secret services in the 1960s and 1970s. Paskai was Hungary's Catholic primate from 1987 until his retirement in 2003 and took part in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict in 2005.

Paskai was a leading member of the "peace priest" movement, which was set up in 1950 by Hungary's communist regime. Its members received preferential treatment, including high-profile church posts. This was possible because while the Vatican officially opposed the peace priest movement, it signed an accord with Hungary in 1964 agreeing to designate church officials only with the approval of the state.

Hungary's communist regime ran the state Office of Church Affairs, which kept tabs on religious activities, manipulated church members in the regime's interest and kept the churches weak and divided.

Paskai, who is retired, has never commented on the findings.

According to Ungvary, Paskai's reports to the secret police were mostly "meaningless." The historian concluded Paskai's official acts were much more damaging — as late as 1986, the cardinal and the Hungarian Bishops Conference refused to support Catholics who wanted to be exempted from military service for moral reasons.

Besides Paskai, the names of several other bishops and leading church officials have surfaced in recent years in connection to the secret services, but all either rejected the allegations or claimed they never provided any information that could have been used against anyone.

After Paskai's past came to light, the Catholic Church set up a foundation to coordinate research in the church's communist-era history, but said it would not be looking at individual cases. In Hungary, the church mostly presents itself as a victim of the communist regime, emphasizing the persecution of priests and the Catholic faithful.

The most famous case was that of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who was arrested in 1948 and accused of treason by the communists. He was sentenced to life in prison and freed during the 1956 Hungarian revolution. When the Soviets crushed the revolution, Mindszenty was granted asylum in the U.S. Embassy, where he lived until 1971.

In the Czech Republic, estimates say at least 150 Catholic priests collaborated with the communist secret police, the STB. Hundreds more were in contact but were actually harassed and did not collaborate. Two bishops have been identified as collaborators; one resigned in 2004 as a result.

Unlike Poland, the Czech Church has no committee looking into the past.

Two days ago, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk published an article about STB contacts in the church on his personal Web page, saying churches are independent of the state and "are governed by their own standards."

"Those who write about the problem mostly do not consider — and that is very unjust — that the church has its own identity, that it has its own means and methods how to cope with mistakes, sins and guilts," he said.

In adjacent Slovakia, the government's Institute of National Memory has listed Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox officials as secret police agents, but all have denied the allegations and have not stepped down.

Ryan Lucas reported from Warsaw and Victor L. Simpson from Rome. Associated Press writers Alison Mutler in Romania, Pablo Gorondi in Hungary, Nadia Rybarova in the Czech Republic, Aleksander Vasovic in Slovakia and Daniela Petroff at the Vatican contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.