A skeleton in the sacristy

Will the archbishop of Bratislava be forced to disclose his links with the communist secret police? In the wake of revelations in the press, Slovakians are about to lift a veil of secrecy on the troubled past of the Catholic hierarchy.

Published on 2 June 2009 at 14:21
 | Ján Sokol, during his period as archbishop of Bratislava-Trnava (Slovakia), in 2007. Photo : Jozef Gálik.

In Slovakia, the question of collaboration between members of the Catholic Church and communist secret police remains a taboo subject. Now the affair of the outgoing Slovak archbishop, Ján Sokol, may provide the catalyst for wider investigation. The archbishop of Bratislava, Ján Sokol, who will shortly retire from office, has become a symbol of the Catholic Church’s inability to tell the truth about its involvement in the more sombre moments of Slovakia’s history, and the extent of its collaboration with the Slovak fascist state and communist Czechoslovakia.

A few days ago, the weekly magazine Týždeň revealed the latest twist in a story implicating the controversial prelate. In 1998, Sokol transferred Sk500 million (€16.6 million) to the bank account of one of his collaborators, ex- StB agent [Czechoslovak secret police], Štefan Náhlik. From as early as 1982, Náhlik, an ex-Franciscan novice, provided the StB with information about his fellow clerics. Later he became a key police informer in operation Vír [whirlwind] launched against an allegedly secret order of Franciscans. According to Týždeň, Sokol must have sold land belonging to the Church to obtain such a large sum. But what was the reason for the bank transfer? And what became of the money? Both of these questions have yet to be answered, and Sokol has rejected any accusation of wrong doing.

The story, which has been widely reported, has failed to impress many Slovaks who were not surprised by fresh evidence of collusion between the communist state and the Church. However, what is new is the reaction of the Church itself, which is taking the revelations seriously, and demanding a full investigation. According to the Slovak media, the Vatican is also closely following the story.

For Slovakia’s clergy, the departure of the archbishop, who has been a persistent and visible stain on the already less than immaculate reputation of the Church will come as a welcome relief. It has long been known that Sokol, whose appointment as bishop in the 1980s was approved by communist authorities, was also a member of state security services. According to documents made public by the daily SME, Sokol was an active agent who received payment for crucial information about his fellow clerics. It has also been suggested that he closely collaborated with the Slovak fascist regime led by another priest, Jozef Tiso, during WWII.

But how did Sokol manage to continue a successful career in the Church in the aftermath of November 1989? And why did he benefit from the continued support of the Catholic hierarchy? Part of the explanation may lie in an unwillingness to compromise a myth cultivated by the Slovak Catholic Church, which has always maintained that it was the main opponent of totalitarianism, as well as its principal victim. Apart from this assertion, it has said little about its role under the communist regime, and the question of collaboration between the clergy and StB secret police has remained a taboo subject. Moreover, it seems that this line has been accepted by the majority of Slovaks, and almost all of Slovakia’ politicians.

The Catholic Church in Slovakia continues to enjoy widespread support, and has succeeded in distinguishing itself from its Czech counterpart, which suffers from a much more negative image. Although the number of practicing Catholics is now on the wane, Slovakia remains a largely Catholic state. According to a recent poll, close to 80 percent of Slovaks consider themselves to be Catholic. Not surprisingly, the majority of the country’s politicians are careful to maintain good relations with the clergy; either because they agree with their views, or because they worry about the degree of influence that the Church may exert on voters.

Traditionally, Catholicism has been an important aspect of Slovakian national identity, and the Catholic Church continues to play an important role in the country. But it is precisely this unassailable position which has prevented it from undertaking an honest evaluation of its past, and clearing the air by getting rid of men like archbishop Ján Sokol.

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