Can of worms opens as Vatican's war archive stays shut

September 7, 2001

The Vatican has admitted that its attempts to use a panel of academics to evaluate the role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust has been a fiasco.

After complaints from the academics that the Vatican had not opened its archives, the Holy See said it was not possible for the group to continue with its work.

The Vatican sponsored the commission, which was set up in 1999, after efforts to promote the beatification of Pius XII had been compromised by Cambridge historian John Cornwell's book Hitler's Pope , which claimed complicity between Pius XII and the Nazi regime, and Pius XII's indifference to the fate of the Jews.

The Vatican engaged six historians of various nationalities, three Catholics and three Jews, to study 12 volumes of documents from the Vatican archives.

The bone of contention was that the volumes had already been published and contained documents selected by the Vatican.

The Vatican never said the full archives would be opened, but at least some of the scholars hoped for access to them.

In late 2000, the six historians published a report that, in the form of a series of unanswered questions, essentially said there was no proof that Pius XII had spoken up when he was well aware of the Holocaust, nor that he had done very much to prevent it.

In July 2000, after the Vatican confirmed its refusal to open the archives, the scholars announced that the commission no longer had a reason to exist.

Last month, one of the historians, Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote in the Jerusalem Report that "the protection of the interests of the church is, for the Secretariat of State of the Vatican, more important than the 'purification of memory' demanded by Pope John Paul II, or than the scientific logic of searching for the truth".

Professor Wistrich added that he felt that there was a struggle between liberal and conservative factions in the Vatican.

He said that Father Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit who is among the promoters of Pius XII's beatification and who was opposed to opening the archives, was "apparently convinced that there is a conspiracy against the church on the part of renegade Catholics, Jews, Freemasons and leftwing liberals".

Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican commission for religious relations with Judaism, said that the still-secret post-1922 material would be made available "once the work of ordering and cataloguing it is completed". He added that the Catholic Church had "no fear of the truth".

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