The Polish government has arrested two of its own generals for the 1984 torture-murder of a popular young priest who supported the Solidarity movement. But Poland still may not have reached high enough into its government to get justice for the priest known as "Father Jerzy."
During a recent visit to Poland, we pressed authorities in the new democracy to revive the investigation into the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. The outcry among Poles after his death forced then-communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to try four low-level agents of the Polish secret police, the SB. They were convicted, but the buck stopped there. Jaruzelski was not about to shine the light further into his own SB.On Sept. 30, we published a column urging further action, and six days later the two generals were arrested. That marked the first attempt by the new government to make the old regime accountable for what happened to Father Jerzy. One of those arrested was the former chief of the SB section that spied on and harassed outspoken Catholic priests. We still believe the order to murder Father Jerzy and the impetus to persecute and murder other priests came from higher up.
We raised the issue in Gdansk when we met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. He told us that "a good explanation of the facts is in everybody's interest," and he backed a more thorough investigation. Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki told us he would look more closely into the case, but he has shown reluctance to lean on the old communist leaders because they have been cooperating in the transfer of power to the new government.
That cooperation would have to be substantial to make up for the sins of the past. From our sources we have learned the specifics of a reign of terror by the SB against priests.
Auto accidents were the preferred SB method of killing the clergy. Waclaw Schenk, a papal chaplain, was the first Polish priest to die in a mysterious car crash after the imposition of martial law in 1981. Two other clergymen were killed in car accidents in 1984. Still another was found dead that year in a forest. Officials claimed it was a suicide, but he was tied to a tree and there was dirt in his mouth.
The SB tried several times to murder Father Jerzy before succeeding in 1984. The SB first tried to kill him by throwing a bomb into his apartment in 1982. More than once he was run off the road.
Those already convicted of his murder testified that one month before Father Jerzy's death, the SB decided to make another effort to kill him, either by a "beautiful traffic accident" or "a good beating" that would "shake him to the edge of a heart attack." Father Jerzy had a weak heart.
The SB finally got him by driving his car off the road, kidnapping him and torturing him to death.
The brutality against the Polish clergy did not stop when the two SB agents were imprisoned in 1984. The next year was a particularly bad one for priests. In April 1985, a parish priest was severely beaten. In May another was burned by attackers with cigarettes. In June another was nearly killed when his car went out of control after the front wheel rolled off. In July another priest was assaulted by men presumed to be SB agents.
Intelligence sources gave us the names of half a dozen other Polish priests who died under mysterious circumstances.
The pattern of abuse was so obvious under Jaruzelski's watch that only someone who was asleep on duty could have missed it. Yet Jaruzelski says he had nothing to do with it.