- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

A much-heralded project of Catholic and Jewish scholars to probe the Catholic Church's policy in Nazi-occupied Europe has ended in an exchange of accusations over the Vatican's reluctance to open all of its archives.

The exchanges between international Jewish leaders and a Jesuit historian at the Vatican began after the six-member scholarly panel suspended its work two weeks ago because it was not allowed to scrutinize archives from 1923 to 1939.

Seymour Reich, a Jewish coordinator of the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, began the exchange by going to the press with complaints that he was "very disappointed with the Vatican's lack of response" to the request for more access.

This charge of bad faith prompted a Vatican response from the Rev. Peter Gumpel, head of the effort to beatify the wartime Pope Pius XII, who said the Jewish complaint was "a violent attack" against the church.

In his July 26 statement, now translated and circulated in the U.S. Catholic press, Father Gumpel said some Jewish members of the six-scholar panel "repeatedly leaked distorted and tendentious" information to the press and "publicly spread the suspicion that the Holy See was trying to conceal documents."

As a result of this "irresponsible behavior," he said, the "initiative to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community has failed."

The panel of three Jewish and three Catholic historians was organized in 1999 after Jewish leaders protested a Vatican report on Pope Pius XII's actions during the war.

The report emphasized papal efforts to save Jews and not provoke Nazi retribution.

The historians, though wishing for full access to Vatican archives, were given the job of combing through 12 volumes of what Father Gumpel called "all the documents of the Vatican archives during the Second World War."

This did not include documents from 1922 to 1939, which was the pontificate of Pius XI but also a period when the future Pius XII was papal ambassador to Germany and Vatican secretary of state.

Jewish scholars argue that documents from this period, which the Vatican says total 3 million pages, may disclose new information about church policy toward Jews in Europe.

Last fall, the panel of scholars said the published volumes left unanswered 47 questions, which it submitted to Rome with a request for more access.

The Vatican has said the vast documentation of Pius XII's pontificate is not yet catalogued and organized for research. The Vatican publishes archives by papal reign.

"Without some positive response to our respectful case for material in the archives that has not been published, we could not maintain our credibility," the scholars said July 20 in suspending their work.

But Father Gumpel said all the six scholars did not read the entire 12-volume set. Instead they broke it into parts for cursory examination, and thus could not produce a final consensus report.

"They were asked to look at the published volumes," Eugene Fisher, a scholar for the U.S. Catholic bishops who helped coordinate the panel, said in an interview. "The archives are simply not ready yet. This is certainly not a reneging on a promise, and it is unfair to characterize this as a disappointment."

He said the Vatican is not concealing documents.

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