Back in December, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus to be the metropolitan-archbishop of Warsaw. News reports soon appeared that, from the 1960s through the early 1990s, Wielgus had collaborated with the communist secret police in Poland. Wielgus denied the allegations, and the Holy See and the Polish bishops backed him up. See the Zenit Daily Dispatch for December 21, 2006, which, along with dispatches for other days referred to below, is linked here .
In defending Wielgus, the Vatican Press Office stated: "The Holy See, in choosing to appoint the new metropolitan archbishop of Warsaw, took into consideration all the circumstances of his life, including those regarding his past. This means that the Holy See nourishes complete trust in Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus and, in full awareness, has entrusted him with the mission of pastor of the Archdiocese of Warsaw." Given that Wielgus personally was flatly denying the allegations at the time this statement was made, one could easily read the statement as meaning that the Holy See had investigated the allegations and found them baseless. The statement, however, never quite says that; read literally, it could also mean that the Holy See knew all about Wielgus’ activities and had determined that they did not disqualify him from becoming metropolitan-archbishop. The statement was perfectly clear on one point however: The Vatican was not pleased with Wielgus’ critics and specifically drew "attention to the public injury that has been inflicted against a specific person’s right to a good reputation."
Whatever the Vatican’s exact position was, however, it soon became inoperative. As reported on CNN and in the Zenit the Ecclesiastical Historical Commission, which is appointed by the Polish bishops, investigated the allegations against Wielgus and confirmed that he had indeed collaborated with the communist security services. According to the CNN story, the commission concluded, "There are plenty of important documents which confirm Wielgus’ willingness for . . . cooperation . . . . The documents . . . show some opinions of intelligence service officials that suggested that the actions of Stanislaw Wielgus (in the city were he lived) could have done harm to people from Church circles." Nevertheless, according to Zenit, the committee also concluded that "it cannot be affirmed that this collaboration had consequences for persons or institutions." It seems we don’t really know what the effects of Wielgus’ actions were.
Wielgus then issued a statement in which he admitted that the allegations were substantially true and, surprisingly, that he had disclosed all this to Pope Benedict XVI prior to accepting his appointment. "I also presented my life history to the Holy Father and the appropriate dicasteries of the Holy See, including this part of my past which comprised being entangled in the contacts with the secret services of the past times . . . . Driven by a desire to do studies important for my academic specialization, I entered this entanglement without proper prudence, courage and determination to break it off. Today I am confessing before you this mistake made by me years ago, as I confessed it to the Holy Father beforehand." He goes on: "I did not inform against anybody and did not attempt to harm anyone. However, by the very fact of this entanglement, I harmed the Church. I have harmed Her again in the recent days when, in the face of a frantic media campaign, I denied the facts of this collaboration." He apologized sincerely and submitted his resignation as metropolitan-archbishop to the Holy Father, who promptly accepted it.
In my view, Wielgus, long ago, did some seriously wrong things, but they were the kinds of bad things that generally good people might do¯low-level collaboration, which he probably perceived to be harmless, in exchange for things that in any decent society would have been his by right, such as the ability to travel to pursue his studies. He was undoubtedly far in the wrong to lie about the collaboration in recent days, but we are all tempted to lie to cover up things we’re ashamed of. I don’t think that Wielgus could function as archbishop-metropolitan of Warsaw, but I give him great credit for doing the right thing¯albeit belatedly¯in resigning. This is to accept a real penance for real sins. Wielgus is doing what he ought to do to save his soul.
I wish the story ended here, but, unfortunately, it does not. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops told Corrierre della Sera yesterday that "when Archbishop Wielgus was nominated, we did not know anything about his collaboration with the secret service." This, of course, flatly contradicts Wielgus’ admission and apology, which expressly and repeatedly said that Wielgus had fully disclosed his past activities to the Holy Father and the appropriate Vatican dicasteries, which had to include the Congregation for Bishops. In light of the curious language used in the Vatican Press Office’s statement from December 21, which asserted that the Holy See knew all about Wielgus’ past and never actually denied the accusations against him, it would seem that Re’s statement to Corrierre della Sera is not correct.
Furthermore, the Vatican Press Office has gone on the attack. "[T]he case of Archbishop Wielgus is not the first and will probably not be the last time that personalities of the Church are attacked on the basis of documentation from the security services of the former regime. There is an enormous amount of material and, in attempting to assess its value and draw reliable conclusions, it must not be forgotten that it was produced by officials of an oppressive and blackmailing regime." It’s true, of course, that the former communist government of Poland was evil, but this doesn’t make its files on collaborators unreliable; on the contrary, historians usually regard such files as a treasure trove. Communists and Nazis both seem to have kept meticulously accurate files documenting their own wrongdoing.
"[T]he current wave of attacks against the Catholic Church in Poland," the Vatican Press Office continues, "rather than a sincere search for transparency and truth, has many hallmarks of being a strange alliance between the persecutors of the past and their adversaries, a vendetta by those who used to persecute the Church and were defeated by the faith and the thirst for freedom of the Polish people." In other words, the people responsible for publicizing this information about Wielgus are former communists and other enemies of the Church, and they are acting from a desire to harm the Church. And therefore¯what? That what they’re saying is untrue? No, the Vatican knows that the allegations are true and probably knew this long before the public did. So why do the backgrounds and intentions of the people publicizing the accusations really matter?
I mention all this because I am reminded of the clerical sex scandals in the United States back in 2002. Back then some of bishops were¯I put it mildly¯not entirely candid in speaking to the faithful. Here, we have Wielgus saying that he made full disclosure to the Holy Father and Re expressly contradicting him. There might be some misunderstanding that explains this, but, frankly, I doubt it. Someone isn’t quite telling us the truth.
Similarly, in 2002 many high church officials complained that the sex scandals had been ginned up by anti-Catholics in the media. For example, in an interview in Spain, reported in the Zenit Daily Dispatch for December 3, 2002, then Cardinal Ratzinger said: "I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign . . . . The constant presence of these news items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information nor to the statistical objectivity of the facts. Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the Church." I believe Cardinal Ratzinger has since formed a more accurate opinion of the events in the United States, but this statement from 2002 reflects what many bishops were saying.
This sort of thing will not do. For one thing, we’re not supposed to judge the intentions of hearts. If someone does something that is, in itself, moral and reasonable¯like using documentary evidence in the public domain to show that someone nominated to a high and responsible office is not fit to hold it¯we do not ordinarily inquire into his motives; even if we have reason to believe they’re questionable, we leave such things to God. That’s a large part of what the Lord meant when he said, Judge not .
More important, in both the sex scandals in the United States in 2002 and in the spy scandals in Poland in 2007, the press¯regardless of its motives¯is doing what the bishops and the Holy See ought to have been doing¯that is, ensuring that men unfit to be priests or bishops cease to function as such. By accepting his resignation, the Vatican has conceded that Wielgus’ past activities make him unsuitable to be archbishop-metropolitan of Warsaw.
Now, either the Vatican knew about Wielgus’ past when it appointed him, as Wielgus says and as the Vatican’s statement in December strongly suggests, or else it did not, as Re now maintains. If the former, then the Vatican’s investigation of Wielgus prior to the appointment was grossly negligent, failing to discover information that was readily available in Poland. If the latter, as seems much more likely, then the Holy See exercised very poor judgment in making the appointment in the first place and even worse judgment in attempting to ram it through even after the truth about Wielgus became public. It stood by Wielgus while it knew he was lying to the faithful by denying the allegations. Many faithful Catholics looking at this situation will think that our bishops, rather than their critics, are the ones doing the real harm to the Church here.
Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.