WARSAW, Poland – Warsaw's new archbishop abruptly resigned Sunday over revelations that he cooperated with Poland's communist-era secret police, stunning worshippers by sadly yielding the archbishop's throne just minutes before he was to be formally installed.
To cries of "No, no!" and "Stay with us!" in and outside St. John's Cathedral, a despondent Stanislaw Wielgus read from a letter to Pope Benedict XVI in which he offered his resignation "after reflecting deeply and assessing my personal situation."
The Vatican said Wielgus' past actions had "gravely compromised his authority" as one of the top church officials in the late Pope John Paul II's deeply Roman Catholic homeland, adding that the 67-year-old priest was right to go "despite his humble and moving request for forgiveness."
But his withdrawal sparked an uproar among those gathered in the red-brick cathedral and crowded outside under umbrellas, most of whom had not heard the Polish church's announcement of the resignation a half hour earlier. "They stoned the bishop!" an elderly woman outside shouted.
In a sign of how the painful revelations have divided believers, Wielgus' words also drew applause from the congregation — including President Lech Kaczynski, whose conservative party has sought both to purge Poland of the vestiges of communist influence and to strengthen traditional Catholic values.
John Paul's staunch opposition to communism is credited with inspiring the rise in the 1980s of Poland's pro-democracy Solidarity movement, which helped end communist rule in 1989.
But the country has grappled since his death with a string of revelations about respected Catholic figures cooperating with the secret services. None has rattled Poles like the case of Wielgus, the highest-ranking church official found to have ties with the secret police.
The disclosure is particularly troubling to many because it shakes a widely held belief that the church acted as a courageous opponent of communism. Secret police agents not only spied on the church, but also brutally murdered a charismatic Warsaw priest tied to Solidarity, the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, in 1984.
While the Mass was to have marked Wielgus' official installation, he had been archbishop since taking his canonical vows for the post Friday. He previously was bishop of Plock, but it was not immediately clear what future role Wielgus might have with the church.
Resignations of bishops or archbishops so early in their tenures are virtually unheard of in the Catholic Church. Most bishops forced to quit because of scandal have been in their seat for years.
After announcing his resignation, Wielgus removed his glasses and sat down on a chair next to the throne that would have been his as archbishop. Cardinal Jozef Glemp took the top seat instead.
Glemp, Poland's top church leader, then delivered a homily defending Wielgus. He called him "God's servant" and warned of the dangers of passing judgment based on incomplete and flawed documents left behind by the communist authorities.
"Today a judgment was passed on Bishop Wielgus," said Glemp. "But what kind of judgment was it, based on some documents and shreds of paper photocopied three times over? We do not want such judgments."
Last fall, Glemp said documents that have come to light since the communist era showed the climate of fear gripping Poles during those days resulted in about 15 percent of the country's clergymen being coerced into giving information to the secret services.
Throughout the homily, Wielgus looked down, his mouth twitching and eyes batting shut repeatedly.
"What he did was stupid, it was a mistake, but it was less harmful than what others did," said Barbara Matusiak, a 60-year-old doctor standing outside the church. "We don't know how we would have acted in his shoes, and so we have to forgive."
Others expressed relief.
"If he was a spy, then he made the right decision to resign," said Teresa Sikorska, 58, who was selling souvenirs at the nearby Royal Castle Square. "How can you go to church and believe a man that spied on people? You can't."
Wielgus was named archbishop by the Vatican on Dec. 6 to replace Glemp, who gave up the post after more than 25 years that included Poland's dark days of martial law during a communist crackdown and its transformation to a free-market democracy.
Allegations that Wielgus was involved with the secret police were first raised by a Polish weekly Dec. 20. But the case flared into a crisis Friday when a church historical commission said it had found evidence that Wielgus had cooperated with the communist authorities.
Wielgus initially denied that, but then acknowledged he did sign an agreement in 1978 promising to cooperate with the security force in exchange for permission to leave Poland to study in West Germany.
He insisted he did not inform on anyone or try to hurt anyone, and he expressed remorse for both his contacts with the secret police and his failure to be forthcoming from the start.
The church said the pope asked Glemp to administer the archdiocese until another replacement is found.
Marek Zajac, a commentator for the respected Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, commended Wielgus for stepping aside, but said the move took too long.
"All of the recent perturbations and painful moments for the church — very dramatic and maybe dangerous for the future of the church in Poland — could have been avoided," Zajac said on TVN24.