I wrote in this space last week about how Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus, on the eve of his installation as metropolitan-archbishop of Warsaw, admitted that he had collaborated with the security services of the former communist government of Poland and then resigned. I was harshly critical of the Holy See’s handling of the affair, arguing that either its initial investigation of Wielgus was grossly negligent in failing to turn up information about him that was readily available in Poland, or else the Holy See knew about Wielgus’ past all along and exercised shockingly poor judgment in appointing him and even standing by him for a while after the facts were made public.
Now the Polish bishops have decided to create an independent commission to investigate themselves for past collaboration with the security services. According to the Zenit Daily Dispatch for January 14, 2007 , local investigative commissions will be formed across Poland, and a "National Ecclesiastical Historical Commission will be set up in March in which historians and jurists, among others, will take part. The Institute of National Remembrance [a pre-existing body created by the Polish government], established to investigate and document cases of Communist collaboration, has been entrusted with the files of the secret police, and will aid in the investigation of the bishops. The results will be sent to the Holy See, which will have the last word."
This is excellent news. In a letter they ordered read in every church in Poland this past Sunday, the Polish bishops stated: "The Church is not afraid of the truth, even if this is a hard, shameful truth, and approaching this truth is sometimes very painful. We deeply believe that the truth liberates, because Jesus Christ himself is a liberating truth. The Church has been struggling with sin inside herself and in the world, to which it is sent, for 2,000 years. Sin degrades man and distorts the image and similitude of God in him. The Church does not carry this through under her own power. It does it under the power of the one, who as the only one can make us free from evil. Therefore we begin every Eucharist with a confession of our sinfulness: ‘I confess to the almighty God . . . . ’ This is not a void liturgical formula, but a deep confrontation with our weakness and faithlessness before the face of the merciful God."
This is the right attitude to have in this difficult and painful situation, and that the Polish bishops have adopted it is hopeful. The willingness of bishops to be investigated by independent fact-finders and, presumably, to suffer real consequences for proved wrongdoing was exactly what was missing from the response of the American bishops to the clergy sex scandals of 2002. The American bishops’ characteristic response was to protect themselves at every turn, sacrificing their priests as need be but never even criticizing a fellow bishop. They often forgot what the Polish bishops are now remembering: He has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in roles of service for the faithful to build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11).
In other words, the office of bishop exists not for the benefit of the bishop but for the benefit of the faithful, and so when a man’s continuing in that office no longer builds up the body of Christ, he should go. We should pray for the Polish bishops, not only in their struggles with the sins of the past, but also that they might become a model to their brother bishops elsewhere.
Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.