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Still no justice in priest's slaying

The last of the criminals convicted of murdering a revered Polish priest went free this summer, and the men who ordered the killing still have served no jail time.

The failure to punish the primary perpetrators of the 1984 torture-murder of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko - known affectionately as "Father Jerzy" - has little to do with evidence and everything to do with the influence of ex-Communists in the Polish Parliament.It was the leftist majority (mostly former Communists) in Parliament who quietly allowed the release of a former secret police official, who was supposed to serve a 25-year sentence after his 1985 conviction.

More disturbing is Poland's inability to bring to justice the higher-ups who orchestrated the murder. Instead, Polish officials convicted four low-level secret police thugs for the crime.

Ironically, it was the invocation of Father Jerzy's strenuous efforts for democracy and freedom that helped the Solidarity political party obtain a majority in Polish Parliament again. And this is also the year when the church process of beatification for Father Jerzy has begun.

We know a great deal about the murder of Father Jerzy and subsequent attempts at "justice," because we've followed it closely for more than a decade. Our associate Dale Van Atta visited Warsaw twice, and personally pressed the case with former President Lech Walesa, as well as with Poland's first post-Communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and its interior minister, Krzysztof Kozlowski.

Our columns were credited in the Polish press as being "instrumental" in securing the arrest of two generals in late 1990. Ex-Communists still were powerful behind the scenes, so Polish judicial authorities lacked the will to convict. After a two-year trial, the two men, Gen. Wladyslaw Ciaston and Gen. Zenon Platek, were acquitted - not by a jury, but by a five-judge panel. They ruled that "although the generals were probably responsible for the murder," there was not enough evidence to convict them.

Father Jerzy was a frail but enormously courageous priest who stood up to the Communist government and paid the price. He acted as Walesa's personal priest during his Solidarity days when no one else in the Catholic hierarchy dared to do so.

In fact, in the several interviews we have conducted with Walesa, the only time he has cried was at the mention and memory of Father Jerzy. "He was my friend," he told us.

Father Jerzy was the man who came and said Mass for striking Polish workers in 1980 and who never turned his back on them at a time when most other clergymen refused to get involved. For four years, he celebrated Mass for the workers, listened to their complaints, and acted as the Warsaw spokesman for the Solidarity labor movement.

Along the way, he became Poland's most popular priest and a secret favorite of Pope John Paul II. Sadly, this also made him a target of the Polish secret police.

He survived several assassination attempts, but his luck ran out on Oct. 19, 1984, when three security officers overtook the priest and his driver on a deserted road. The young priest's body was found 11 days later.

The outpouring of grief was so great that the Polish government was forced to find scapegoats. They coughed up the three underlings and their police supervisor who "instigated" the crime. But they claimed that the buck stopped there.

One of those convicted in the slaying was Capt. Grzegorz Piotrowski, who was sentenced to 25 years. But Piotrowski is now out of prison. The only question remaining is whether the temporary release will become permanent.

United Feature Syndicate Inc.