Friday, October 29, 2010

The Catholic Church's post-communist windfall

Communists gave Poland's Roman Catholic Church a raw deal, confiscating lands and buildings, and arresting many leading clerics. 

But in the two decades since the end of communism, the powerful organization has more than made up for the losses it suffered — and now the Church is worried that its sweet deal is having a detrimental effect on its prestige.

Unlike everyone else who lost out in 45 years of Soviet-backed communism, the Church managed to push through a special commission tasked with returning or compensating it for property it lost.

The commission has almost wrapped up its work, but it has been so hugely generous that by some counts the Church has more than made up for any losses it suffered under the previous regime. 

Adding to the controversy, the 12-member commission, set up in 1990, is a unique institution whose decisions cannot be appealed to the courts or anywhere else.

The commission has been an area of concern for years, but because of its tradition of holding closed hearings, and the general deference to the Catholic Church, little was done about it.

However, in recent years a change in attitude toward the Church, as well as some spectacular verdicts by the commission, have made it a much more pressing problem. 

In one particularly controversial decision in 2008, the commission arranged to compensate an order of nuns for $10 million in lost land. 

The land they received in compensation in suburban Warsaw was actually worth $85 million, and was quickly flipped for a huge profit. 

There have been similar cases around the country.

Finally, an intermediary who represented many parishes trying to get property back — who was also a former communist-era secret policeman — was arrested last month on charges of trying to bribe members of the commission to return favorable verdicts.

“The commission systematically and without scruples broke the law,” said Slawomir Kopczynski, a left-wing member of parliament.

The resulting odor around the commission has prompted the church to call for its quick retirement, although it still has about 240 cases of the original 3,000 left to decide on.

“The Church has suffered so much moral damage because of the commission that now it is ready to make some compromises,” said Bishop Stanislaw Budzik, the secretary general of Poland's episcopal conference, who defended the commission and the Church from what he called “unfair” attacks in the media.

Poland's center-right government is promising to wrap up the commission by the end of this year, but it may not be quite so easy to put the controversial body out of business. The ex-communist left is challenging the law creating the commission as being unconstitutional because it provides no right of appeal.

Politically, the fuss over the commission is fueling a rising anti-clericalism in Poland.

“Poles finally just want to live in a secular state, without priests taking part in state functions, and with a full accounting of the commission's actions,” said Janusz Palikot, a  politician trying to build a new party on the issue.

The local governments who lost valuable land to the commission are also planning on fighting.

“We don't intend to forget about the millions of zlotys torn from us, possibly illegally,” said Jacek Majchrowski, the mayor of Krakow. “If it is confirmed that land was returned to the church in violation of the law, we will demand compensation from the state treasury.”

The cost could run into the millions.

The problems is that no one — not even the Church — knows exactly how much was taken by the communists and how much was returned by the commission.

According to one assessment, the Church had about 420,000 acres in land when the war ended. During the first 15 years of communist rule, when repression was at its height, the church lost about 220,000 acres, according to a calculation done by the Polityka news weekly. 
By 1970, as the regime loosened its grip, the Church started to make good on its losses. But in some cases it was given land and buildings that had belonged to German protestants before the war.

The pace of returns picked up after 1990, with the Church getting at least 190,000 acres, as well as buildings, hospitals, schools, museums, theaters and $38 million in financial compensation. 

However, there may have been more land handed over to the Church, and a lot of what was given was much more valuable than the land the Church lost in the 1950s.

The Church is the only institution to have regained everything it lost under communism, private landowners have so far received almost nothing.


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