Pope furious as Polish launch new priest spy inquiry

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The Independent Online

Pope Benedict XVI is reported to have been left "furious" and "isolated" by events of recent days when the man he approved as the next Archbishop of Warsaw was exposed as an agent of the Polish secret police.

After warmly approving the choice of Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus, Benedict was forced by the furore surrounding his candidacy to accept his resignation only hours before his installation.

The Vatican is alive with rumours that Giovanni Battista Cardinal Re, head of the Council of Bishops, will be the next victim of the affair, and that a satisfactory way to boot him upstairs is being contrived. After Bishop Wielgus's resignation, Cardinal Re declared: "We knew nothing about his collaboration". He was frankly not believed. "That was obviously rubbish", said one Vatican insider.

In Warsaw, Polish bishops have agreed to investigate the involvement of Catholic priests with the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (SB), the secret police in the communist era. "The bishops have confirmed the will to carry out a full verification of the truth about ourselves," said Jozef Michalik, head of Poland's conference of bishops. Historians and church officials say up to 15 per cent of priests were pressured into co-operating with the SB.

The Pope's decision to accept Bishop Wielgus's resignation was hailed by the Polish media with headlines such as "rescued by Rome". But Vatican observers say the German Pope has been badly damaged by the latest scandal to hit his papacy, following the clamour last autumn over a speech condemned as anti-Islamic.

In the latest case, it is not his words that have tripped him up but his judgement. Stanislaw Wielgus, a conservative, was not on the first list of those considered for thejob of Archbishop of Warsaw: his name was added, according to Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica newspaper, because the Pope favoured him.

Bishop Wielgus first denied co-operating with the SB, despite revelations in a Polish weekly that his name figured in documents found at the National Remembrance Institute. He then admitted it, but said: "I never informed on anyone and never tried to hurt anyone."

But if Bishop Wielgus was the first victim of the scandal, Benedict was not far behind. Approving the selection of Bishop Wielgus, the Pope had declared his "full confidence" in him, taking account of "all his life circumstances, including those connected with his past". The implication was that he knew Bishop Wielgus had skeletons in his closet, but chose to overlook them.

A member of the Nazi Youth as a young man in Bavaria, Benedict seems to believe it is better to forgive and forget awkward episodes in the past.

During a visit to Warsaw last year, he warned about coming down heavily on collaborators. "We must guard against the arrogant claim of setting ourselves up to judge earlier generations who lived in different times and in different circumstances," he told clergy, who applauded the words.

"Ratzinger is not a courageous man," said one Vatican specialist, "he didn't stand up to the Nazis, and he doesn't expect others to be courageous."

But Benedict once again appears short on wise advisers or - worse - is being deliberately led into error by forces in the Vatican who are out of sympathy with him.

In public, the Pope takes aim at the media. "I think the Pope believes the media is responsible for much of his problems," said Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent of The Tablet. During his Epiphany sermon last week, the Pope warned against the "immense expansion of the mass media which, on the one hand, multiplies information indefinitely and, on the other, appears to weaken our capacity to make a critical synthesis."