The hand of history in Eastern Europe continues to reach from the communist past – most dramatically in Sunday's resignation of Stanislaw Wielgus, Archbishop of Warsaw, a half hour before his inauguration as the central figure in the powerful Polish Catholic Church.
Mr. Wielgus, who for weeks denied working for the hated communist secret service, stepped down after evidence against him grew too extensive, outstripping even what many church colleagues assumed: Over 20 years, Wielgus met with secret police more than50 times, took three days of secret agent training, and signed at least two documents promising to spy for secret police on trips abroad, according to the well-respected Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita.
Revelations of such participation – especially inside a Polish nation governed by the ardently patriotic twins, Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, who have made it a mission to ferret out communist collaborators – threatened to split the influential Polish church, as well as the mainly Catholic citizenry.
How to deal with informers or spies continues to roil Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other former Soviet states, 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two key issues are the type and severity of laws and methods designed to determine the degree to which individuals collaborated, and such individuals' fitness for current jobs.
The secret police, particularly in states such as East Germany, penetrated deeply into the fabric of society, often forcing or coercing ordinary people to inform on each other. Much of the internal debates in Eastern Europe have to do with the extremely subjective question of the degree and willingness of collaborators.
Dealing with collaborators "...has always been a source of political struggle [in the East bloc]... between two schools of thought. One says let's forget and forgive, and the other says that without a proper dealing with the past, we will not have a good system of rules for human conduct," says Vojtech Cepl, a former Constitutional Court justice and now a professor of law at Charles University in Prague who helped draft both the Czech Republic's Constitution and its "lustration" laws, which determine how former collaborators should be treated.
The Czech Republic was a leader among Central and Eastern Europe states which wanted not protracted human rights trials, but to put the past firmly behind. Slovakia has a little-used lustration law. Poland, however tardily, is now pushing them.
"This issue is becoming more topical, especially for the young people in these Eastern European countries who want a proper dealing with the past," says Petr Uhl, a former Czech dissident. "It's an issue that overreaches the significance of any one country."
The Wielgus case takes on extra sensitivity, however, since the Catholic church is enormously influential as a moral and cultural authority – not least of all because of its anti-communist stance. It was instrumental in giving aid and succor to the proud Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s, the earliest opposition to Moscow – apotheosized by the visit of then-Pope John Paul II, himself Polish, to epic cheering crowds in 1979.
Until Wielgus was nominated by Pope Benedict XVI on Dec. 6, the key Polish church job was held byCardinal Jozef Glemp, a pioneer of the former underground fight against communism.
Almost immediately, allegations and accusations of Wielgus's complicity with secret police began to surface in the Polish press. Two investigations were launched, one state and one church. Wielgus steadily denied any involvement or collaboration. Even Friday morning, after Rzeczpospolita published portions of the investigation teams' documents, Wielgus stated that "I have never carried out any intelligence activities, or harmed anyone."
Seven hours later, as protesters began to appear outside his residence, Wielgus issued a statement saying that he had, in fact, participated to some degree with secret police.
On Saturday evening, a pastoral letter penned by Wielgus was read in all Polish churches, essentially confessing that, "with this involvement I have harmed the church."
Some Polish newspapers demanded the inauguration be canceled and high-profile figures such as Tadeusz Goclowski, the Archbishop of Danzig, and other leading Catholic clergy, like the Bishop of Krakow, stated that they would not attend the inauguration because, as Mr. Goclowski put it, "too many damaging documents [exist] with no doubt of their authenticity."
Cardinal Glemp, who was present at the cathedral when Wielgus tearfully gave up the post, urged church members not to regard Wielgus's actions too severely, reminding them of the overwhelming pressure many Poles were placed under to cooperate. Wielgus, who has apologized for both his dealings with the secret police and his failure to be forthright initially, maintains that he never informed on priests.
While Germany has allowed its citizens to request access to their Stasi files, Poland has tried distancing itself from its past. But the Kaczynski brothers and their Law and Justice party are determined to cleanse the country of its communist past, pushing for the investigation of the backgrounds of a whole range of politicians, journalists, artists, and bureaucrats.
• Jeff White contributed from Prague.