Repenting for one's sins is an integral part of the Roman Catholic faith. Most Catholics, however, choose to bare their souls in the privacy of the confessional, rather than in front of a packed cathedral.
The new archbishop of Warsaw shocked Polish Catholics Sunday by stepping down over his ties to communist-era secret police, just minutes before he was apparently due to be ordained.
At a special mass in Warsaw Cathedral replacing a formal ceremony that was to have sworn him in, a despondent Stanislaw Wielgus read out a letter to Pope Benedict XVI in which he offered his resignation "after reflecting deeply and assessing my personal situation." The resignation came at the request of the pope, who appointed him just a month ago.
The announcement caused uproarious scenes in the church and among crowds of worshippers gathered outside. Hundreds of faithful -- including many followers of Poland's controversial right-wing Radio Maryja radio station -- had gathered in the rain outside Warsaw cathedral to support Wielgus, shouting "No, no!" and "Stay with us" -- a chant used by crowds during visits by the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II. Others, who welcomed the decision, applauded or shouted "Grey! Grey!" -- Wielgus' codename as an informant to the secret services.
Most of the congregation, assembled for what they thought would be the archbishop's ordination, heard the news directly from Wielgus, even though the Church had announced the archbishop's resignation half an hour previously.
According to Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Wielgus' past actions had "gravely compromised his authority" as one of the top Church officials in the late Pope John Paul II's deeply Catholic homeland. He said Wielgus' decision to step down was the right one, "despite his humble and moving request for forgiveness." The episode was a "moment of great suffering for the Church," Lombardi said.
The revelations have divided Poland's Catholic community. Opinion polls before the resignation showed a majority of Poles felt Wielgus should quit. But many Catholics, including older people who had lived through Communism and ultra-orthodox Radio Maryja followers, were sympathetic.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski was among those who welcomed the resignation. Kaczynski's right-of-center Law and Justice party has sought both to purge the country of the remains of communist influence and to strengthen Catholic values.
Seventeen years after communism fell, the country has been shocked by a string of revelations about respected Catholic figures found to have cooperated with the intelligence services under communism. Wielgus is to date the highest-ranking church official found to have agreed to cooperate with the secret police.
An image problem for the Church
The disclosure is particularly troubling to many because it shakes a widely-held belief that the Church courageously opposed communism, for example by supporting the pro-democracy Solidarity movement during the 1980s. However historians say up to 10 percent of the clergy could have cooperated with the communist regime and its feared secret police.
Secret police agents not only spied on the church, but also brutally murdered the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, a young and charismatic Warsaw priest connected to Solidarity, in 1984.
After announcing his resignation, Wielgus removed his glasses and sat down on a chair next to the throne that would have been his had he remained archbishop. His predecessor, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, took the top seat instead. The Church said the pope has asked Glemp to administer the archdiocese until a replacement is found.
Glemp, who is also Poland's primate, delivered a homily defending Wielgus, calling him "God's servant" and warning of the dangers of basing a decision 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," Glemp said.
"(The secret police) was a huge organization that penetrated all layers of Polish society and in particular the clergy, which was the most independent and patriotic group," Glemp said to cheers from the congregation. "Wielgus was forced by harassment, shouts and threats to become a collaborator."
Throughout the homily, Wielgus kept his gaze directed downwards, his mouth twitching and eyes batting shut in apparent emotion.
Wielgus, previously bishop of Plock, was named by the Vatican on Dec. 6 to replace Glemp, who stepped down after more than 25 years as archbishop. Allegations that Wielgus was involved with the secret police were first raised by a Polish weekly on Dec. 20.
The case turned into a crisis Friday when a church historical commission said it had found evidence that Wielgus had cooperated.
Wielgus initially denied the allegations, but then acknowledged that he signed an agreement in 1978 promising to cooperate with secret police in exchange for permission to leave Poland to study in West Germany.
He expressed remorse for both his contacts with the secret police and his failure to be forthcoming from the start. He stressed that he did not inform on anyone or try to hurt anyone.
The crisis marks yet another setback for the Catholic Church, which is still recovering from tension with the Muslim world caused by a speech given by Pope Benedict in Regensburg.