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Four cautions as crisis builds about priest-collaborators under the Communists

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

Crises always have their peaks and valleys, and this has been a “peak week” for the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe, as it faces a new wave of revelations regarding the collaboration of priests and bishops with the dreaded secret police forces during the Communist era.

Such charges surfaced in Slovakia, for example, against the Archbishop of Bratislava-Trnava, Jan Sokol. While rumors of his alleged collaboration are not new, the 73-year-old prelate finally acknowledged on Tuesday that he indeed had contacts with the StB, the Communist security agency in the then-Czechoslovakia, though Sokol insisted these meetings were forced upon him and that his actions were always “for the good of the church.” Police files identify Sokol as an informant, though some have questioned their authenticity, and two former agents named in them say they never met Sokol.

Those allegations followed Monday’s release of a new book in Poland, “Priests in the Face of the Security Services,” written by former Solidarity chaplain Fr. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, who was twice beaten by the secret police. It identifies more than thirty priests, including four bishops, as collaborators. Most prominent is Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, who resigned as the Archbishop of Poznan in Poland in May 2002 following accusations of sexual abuse from seminarians at his diocesan seminary. Paetz has denied collaborating.

Such revelations have proved deeply painful to the Catholic church, especially in Poland, where much of its self-image in the 20th century was tied up with its heroic resistance to Communism.

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As with the sexual abuse crisis in the United States, once the dam breaks, documents and accusations surface so rapidly that the media barely has time to record them, let alone sort through them carefully. In such an environment, elastic terms such as “collaboration” and “informant” tend to be recycled endlessly, giving a false impression of fixed meaning, when in fact every situation is different.

Herewith four cautions which, in an ideal world, would be packaged into every story on the current crisis – but which, under the twin pressures of time and space, are generally left unsaid.

(1) Don’t forget the big picture.

tWhat sometimes fades from view is why the Communists were so interested in recruiting priest-informants in the first place – namely, because the Catholic Church was far and away the most influential source of opposition to Communist regimes all across Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland. If some of the shine is today coming off the church’s halo, it does not alter that basic reality.

tWhile the Communists could eradicate opposition parties and dissident groups, they could not simply shut down the church without triggering unacceptable levels of public protest. Instead, they engaged in what historians of the era have described as a “massive” effort to corrupt it from within, and given the instruments of control available to totalitarian regimes, it should be no surprise that those efforts had some success. In Poland, estimates are that perhaps as much as ten percent of priests were informants for the secret police.

A higher percentage, however, were active in various forms of resistance. One such priest, Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, was kidnapped, tortured and eventually killed by three agents of the security forces, who then dumped his body into the Vistula Water Reservoir. A process of beatification for Popieluszko is currently underway. The author of “Priests in the Face of the Security Services,” Isakowicz-Zaleski, was tortured by the secret police for his pro-Solidarity activism.

Isakowicz-Zaleski has told Polish reporters that he was motivated to begin researching the role of priest-collaborators when he discovered, to his horror, in his own police file that the informants who kept tabs on his activity were fellow priests. Even Isakowicz-Zaleski, however, has said that “most priests exited the Communist era with their heads held high.”

tWhat the evidence from the Communist era will eventually show, most experts believe, is that many priests ran great personal risk to assist the opposition, some were compromised and collaborated with the authorities, and most just did their best under difficult circumstances to deliver basic pastoral care.

(2) Today’s revelations are based largely on documents from the secret police archives, which can be misleading.

tDishonesty was endemic throughout the Soviet system. Experts say that officials of the secret police also routinely inflated their success in recruiting informants, or exaggerated the importance of what these informants had to say. This reality suggests caution in evaluating archival material, which cannot always be taken at face value. Finding a piece of paper which flags a given priest as a collaborator is not, ipso facto, evidence of guilt.

tSeveral years ago I was traveling in Slovakia, where I met an elderly Jesuit who had spent years in a prison camp for his role as a refusenik. He described how things worked in that era.

t“The secret police was probably the biggest employer in the country,” he said. “There were all these agents in Bratislava who had nothing to do. So, they would drive out to the countryside and knock on a poor pastor’s door. They would harass him for a few hours, keeping him away from his work, and get nothing but chit-chat. Then they would go back to the office and write up reports about all the valuable intelligence that Fr. X had passed on to them. It was all a joke.”

tGiven the powerful inducements the secret police had at their disposal – the carrot of cash and other privileges, the stick of brute force – no doubt some priests, like many other people, succumbed to temptation, and it’s entirely legitimate to demand a reckoning. But scholars warn that sensational headlines based on documents from police archives have to be taken with a grain of salt.

(3) “Collaboration” is a broad term that covers widely varying degrees of guilt.

tEven when it’s established that a priest or bishop “collaborated,” it’s difficult to know exactly what that means. It could mean, for example, that the cleric met occasionally with the police, but never gave them anything of value, and simply “played along” in order to survive. Or, it could mean that the cleric provided damaging information that directly caused harm to others. Such appears to be the case, for example, with the priests who informed on Isakowicz-Zaleski in Poland.

tDuring the Communist era, the Polish church had a policy that priests were not to have secret meetings with the security forces. Proving that such meetings took place, therefore, is enough to show that a given priest broke church discipline. What degree of culpability he bears, however, is another matter.

tIn most cases, the files do little to bring clarity. Often they record only that a given figure, usually identified by a code name, met with officials of the security services, or that he signed documents agreeing to collaborate, but they don’t state in detail what he or she is supposed to have said.

tPaetz may be the best example. Documents identify him as an “informational contact,” not an agent, during a period in the 1970s and early 1980s when he worked in the papal household in Rome. To date, no one knows for sure what information he provided. Experts say it’s possible that Polish intelligence operatives sought Paetz out not primarily to elicit secrets, but as a “backdoor” channel to Paul VI and the Secretariat of State, whose policy of Ostpolitik was more open to engagement with the Communists than the policies of the Polish hierarchy. Moreover, as a Vatican official, Paetz was not strictly bound by the policies of the Polish bishops against such contacts. Records indicate that he broke off his contacts when he returned to Poland as a bishop.

tNone of this is to defend Paetz. It is to suggest, however, the need for careful analysis before reaching conclusions.

tIn the case of former Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus of Warsaw, who resigned Jan. 6 just hours after taking office following disclosures that as a junior cleric he had signed a form promising to collaborate, it’s still not clear if he revealed anything of value. Wielgus himself has insisted that he did not, and some forces in the Polish church are urging him to take legal action to clear his name.

tIn preparing his book, Isakowicz-Zaleski sent letters to clerics whose names surfaced in the archives, asking them to explain what had happened. In at least one case, Polish sources have reported, the cleric responded with a full account which indicated that the alleged “collaboration” was phony. Isakowicz-Zaleski accepted the account and did not name the individual. Part of the reason he went public with Paetz, Polish reports say, is that Paetz simply returned Isakowicz-Zaleski’s letter unopened, insisting that he was “not to be judged” in such a manner.

In many cases, it may take extensive archival research, along with interviews with former officials of the security services (assuming they’re still alive and willing to cooperate, and that their testimony can be corroborated) to establish what actually transpired. It’s possible that some contacts were innocent, and it’s equally possible that something nefarious took place. Right now, it’s almost impossible to say in a given instance which is closer to reality.

(4) It’s important to avoid anachronistic standards.

tPeople who have lived under totalitarian systems warn that it’s dangerous to pass judgment without knowing the pressures individuals faced. The insight applies to the current round of soul-searching over collaboration with the Communist secret police in two ways.

tFirst, some level of “contact” with the security agencies may simply have been the path of least resistance for many clergy in Eastern bloc countries. They may have understood themselves to be doing what was necessary to keep up their pastoral or academic service, without ever crossing the line into active collaboration. Deception was endemic, and it’s reasonable to assume that many of those who “collaborated” did so deceptively.

tSecond, even when people did cross the line and provide information that caused harm to others, the circumstances have to be taken into account. Were they threatened with physical harm? Were members of their families, colleagues, or friends threatened? Or was this merely a craven play for special privileges in a corrupt system? Such factors may not alter the gravity of the act, but they should influence moral judgments about degrees of responsibility.

* * *

In the end, the Church will have to come to terms with its own past, in part because a free press and independent scholarly research won’t leave it any other option. Catholicism in Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, has repeatedly trumpeted its resistance to the Soviets, and simple justice requires the church to be equally forthcoming about its compromises and failures. As Isakowicz-Zaleski put it, “The church’s avoiding of the problem could lead to irreversible harm. Above all, it will cast a shadow on those clergy (and they were the vast majority) who never cooperated with the secret police.”

What these four cautions do suggest, however, is that a rush to judgment in individual cases would be equally unjust. This is one of those situations in which, however unsatisfying it may be emotionally, the only responsible course is to wait until the facts are in.

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