Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Pope and the secret world of intelligence

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pope John Paul II was regularly briefed by the CIA. The revelation

will further fuel the controversy about the resignation of Mgr Stanislaw Wielgus, the Archbishop of Warsaw.

His decision to quit, only minutes before he was due to celebrate his inaugural mass, came after he confessed to being an informant for Poland's communist-era secret police and intelligence service.

The news has sent shock waves across the worldwide Catholic fiefdom.

It will also cast a cloud over the cries of those millions of Catholics who had gathered in St Peter's Square two years ago to call for the canonisation of their nation's favourite son. It will raise serious questions as to which other Churchmen in the once-communist world had secret links to the intelligence network.

An MI6 officer, who served in Warsaw during the closing years of the 44 years of one-party rule in Poland, said last week: "There were question marks against a number of senior members of the Church. But the level of their collaboration is now difficult to assess. Some, like Wielgus, were recruited while still at university. Others became collaborators when they began to climb up through the Church hierarchy. This was not unique in communist Poland".

MI6 files indicate that "as many as fifteen percent of priests" in the former communist Poland and elsewhere in the Soviet Union had "some form of collaboration" with the regime.

"A number of those are still in office, some holding high positions. It is how to deal with them that will now give Pope Benedict XVI cause for concern", said the MI6 officer.

Before Christmas he publicly said he had chosen Stanislaw Wielgus to be Warsaw's new archbishop after scrupulous checks on his background and career in the Polish Church -- and that he had been "fully aware of his past in making the appointment".

Now Benedict has been forced to bring out of retirement Cardinal Josef Glemp, the former Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland -- and a close friend of John Paul.

While Poland's faithful struggle to come to terms with how Poland's security service had established a vast security apparatus, with spies and informers in every profession and workplace, they could draw comfort from the belief that John Paul had played a vital role in freeing them from communism without being tainted by the revelation that has destroyed the reputation of Wielgus.

Indeed, when he was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, John Paul had warned his clergy "to avoid any contact with the security forces if possible, and, if not, to report it to a superior".

But shortly after he was elected the 261 pope in 1978, John Paul had received a letter from President Jimmy Carter. It was hand-carried to the Vatican by his wife, Rosalynn. At the end of her private audience she handed it to the pope. One of those who witnessed the moment was Mgr John Magee, the pontiff's English-language private secretary.

Later over a private dinner with me at Rozellas, a Rome restaurant favoured by the Vatican hierarchy, John Magee confirmed the letter was "Washington approval for the pope to be briefed by the CIA on a regular basis".

Almost forty years before, one of the founders of the CIA, General William "Wild Bill" Donovan, had been received in audience by Pope Pius XII and decorated with the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Sylvester, the oldest and most prestigious of papal knighthoods.

From that day when Donovan had bowed his head before the pontiff, the CIA had remained ensconced as the prime intelligence adviser to successive pontiffs.

But it would be William Casey more than any other director who, after Rosalynn Carter's visit, developed the CIA ties with the Vatican as John Paul's guide through the murky world of secret intelligence.

It was the CIA who kept him continuously informed on global events. As well as the CIA Rome station, based in the shadow of the Vatican walls, the agency operated a network of what Casey called "our messengers". They included Lee lacocca, the car magnate; Spyros Skouras, the shipping millionaire; Robert Abplanalp, the aerosol tycoon; Barron Hilton, the hotelier; William Simon, a former US Treasury Secretary; and Robert Wagner, the former Mayor of New York who became President Carter's personal envoy to the Holy See. Finally there was Clare Boothe who served on the US government's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which oversaw the CIA's covert operations.

Throughout his long reign, John Paul knew he was never more than a telephone call from the present CIA director. In turn they had the direct line to the ivory-white telephone on the pontiff's desk: extension 3101 in the Apostolic Palace.

Casey's "messengers" unfailingly called the number to let John Paul know "an extra important message" was being hand-carried from Casey, and later his successors.

Those messages remain one of the many secrets stored in the Vatican archives.

But Jonathan Petre, a Vatican watcher, said last week: "The Church can expect to be implicated by more details of its links to the world of secret intelligence".

By Gordon Thomas

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