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Causes and consequences of Polish parish priest's murder

The Priest and the Policeman: The Courageous Life and Cruel Murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, by John Moody and Roger Boyes. New York: Summit Books. 251 pp. $17.95. The 1980s may well be remembered for intelligence operations gone wrong. Everyone knows of Oliver North, William Casey, and Rafael Eftan (of Pollard notoriety). This modest and well-informed book brings us Grzegorz Piotrowski, the secret police captain whose bumbling murder of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko on Oct. 19, 1984, followed by a revealing trial - including three accomplices - and heavy sentences, added new force to the cold war in Poland between state and society.

Solidarity at last acquired an appealing martyr in the grand Polish tradition: a parish priest of peasant background. Furthermore, the murder triggered such serious rivalries within the Jaruzelski government that the secret police actually found themselves liable for their actions. Here was a warning to Communist policemen everywhere that classic dictatorship was ebbing, that a quasi-legal order might develop, and that safety lay in following the book. Finally, the case revealed amazing incompetence among the secret police, truly a gang that couldn't shoot straight.

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The record of cruelty, blindness, and bureaucratic infighting is briskly narrated in this popularized account. Interviews, plus scattered excerpts from Fr. Popieluszko's diary, form its backbone; the authors unfortunately weaken a convincing case by citing no sources. They offer neither broad observations on the police function in a dictatorship nor lively portraits of the hero and the villain. Both remain distant figures, curiously similar in their political naivet'e and recklessness, as zealots who venture too far in the duel between the Roman Catholic Church and the secret police.

Neither camp was united. The Roman Catholic hierarchy, an older group led by Cardinal Glemp, was ready for compromise with Jaruzelski to strengthen the church as an institution - new churches, schools, priests - as against the day of a possible hardline, neo-Stalinist backlash, perhaps even Soviet intervention.

Younger priests, including Fr. Popieluszko, thought very differently. As good Poles, alert to parish opinion, they stood with Solidarity, trying to fill the gap after it was suppressed by speaking out from the pulpit.

The secret police also were divided, between the old-line officers, often bound by friendship and intermarriage, and the senior military men who were imposed on them by Jaruzelski.

The growing crowds that Popieluszko attracted triggered intense police harassment. The question is, when and especially why this became a conspiracy for murder: Who ordered the crime, and who knew of the order? Conclusive answers are impossible; the trial was consciously narrow in scope. But Jaruzelski and his faction can be absolved. The murder undercut their portrayal - intended to satisfy the foreign financial community whose loans were desperately needed - of a Poland that was stabilizing, rejecting extremism.

The secret police old guard is another matter. Their authority, prestige, self-esteem were threatened by Jaruzelski hardly less than by Popieluszko. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Murdering Popieluszko would surely bring riots, demonstrations, the replacement of Jaruzelski by hardliners who would unleash the police. That Piotrowski was not a skilled hit man but a blundering brute, that the public outcry would be peaceful, yet prevent a cover-up, that Moscow would support Jaruzelski: The police foresaw none of this. Some 300 of them were soon dismissed. ``Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first strike blind.''

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