The latest scandal to rock the Catholic Church, causing a storm in Italy and elsewhere, follows a familiar pattern: first the crime, then the cover-up. It concerns whether the Church kidnapped Jewish children after the Holocaust and has at its center, yet again, Pius XII, the pope that the Church appears determined to make into a saint despite his criminal role during the Holocaust and, we now learn, quite probably afterward. A Church document of October 23, 1946, recently disclosed in Corriere della Sera, contains papal orders for the French Church forbidding the return of entire classes of Jewish children entrusted to Church institutions during the Holocaust.
The authorship of the directive remains in question. It may have been written at the behest of Bishop Angelo Roncalli, Pope Pius XII's representative in France (and later Pope John XXIII) to record instructions he had received from Rome. But the document emerged from the French Catholic Church's archives, and its authenticity, after some hedging, has been acknowledged by Church officials. It forbids all Jewish children (whose parents had been slaughtered) from being returned to Jewish institutions--which would obviously be in the best position to reunite them with relatives. It also contains the following general papal principle and policy: "If the [Jewish] children have been entrusted [to the Church] by their parents, and if the parents now claim them back, they can be returned, provided the children themselves have not been baptized. It should be noted that this decision of the Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father" (emphasis added).
This document effectively lays out a Vatican policy of refusing to relinquish custody of various categories of Jewish children who were entrusted by their parents to Church institutions or individual Catholics for safekeeping during the Holocaust. By taking in Jewish children, these Catholics and Church bodies saved thousands of lives. But the document confirms the long-existing suspicions, grounded in postwar reports from Jewish organizations, that, however praiseworthy the Church and Catholics were for saving the lives of many Jewish children, the Church had a policy after the war of keeping Jewish children for itself. The Forward has printed the heartbreaking testimony of a man from Belgium who says the Church "took away my childhood": "With the complicity of Catholic and civil officials, my name was changed to Antoine Benoit and I went through a series of Catholic schools. At the same time, my uncle investigated about me and was told many lies, including that I had died." But his uncle persisted, finally succeeding in rescuing him after twelve years. Then there was the infamous case in France of Robert and Gerald Finaly. For eight years, the Church refused to relinquish them to their relatives (their parents were killed in Auschwitz). And, as The New York Times reported, a second French Church document has also been discovered: a letter from July 1946 to Roncalli from the grand rabbi of France and the head of the Jewish Central Consistory asking for help in retrieving 30 Jewish children. "Almost two years after the liberation of France, some Israelite children are still in non-Jewish institutions that refuse to give them back to Jewish charities." It is not known what happened to these children. Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, was similarly hidden from his parents (who survived the Holocaust and returned to Poland to claim him) by the Polish Catholic woman who had earlier saved him. Foxman now believes the woman was, through her priest, acting on the orders of the Vatican. He is convinced that "thousands" of Jews were kept by the Church after the war.
No one knows whether this is the case. But the chilling directive of Pope Pius XII points to what may have been a continental criminal conspiracy. Surely it necessitates an official and independent investigation so the truth comes to light. Surely this Church, which preaches repentance, must undertake a full program of repair toward its victims.
Now has the Church reacted? Officially, the Vatican and national Catholic churches are silent. But several unofficial defenders of the Church have weighed in: Their responses have been confused, contradictory, and uncertain. But certain patterns have emerged. They fail to express regret, much less remorse. Not a word of apology. No recognition that a Church policy of kidnapping baptized Jewish children wronged either the children or their parents--those who survived the Holocaust--and families. No repudiation of this cruel policy, no condemnation of Pius XII's imprimatur on it.
Instead they offer obfuscation and justification. The apologists try to exonerate the Church and Pius XII by saying that he and others did not understand the meaning of the Holocaust--a failure of empathy at most. The Canadian historian Michael Marrus, who has previously been indulgent of Pius XII and the Church, told the Associated Press, "What really rings true to me is the Church's failure to understand the Holocaust as a catastrophe that affected the Jewish people, as a people, and that certain consequences had to be drawn from this." Thomas Schmid, writing in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper that frequently supports the Church, wants us to believe that "the blindness of the monstrosity of the Holocaust" was so prevalent in the Church that it extended not just to Pius XII but also to Bishop Roncalli. This is diversionary nonsense dished out for the gullible. It is not that Pius XII did not understand but that he understood only too well, having overseen a Church that actively supported the general persecution of the Jews short of mass murder and that, in Slovakia, even spearheaded the Jews' deportation to their deaths.
The apologists say--without evidence--that the policy of refusing to return Jewish children to their relatives wasn't really carried out, or that what is contained in the French document is not so bad. "Certainly there was a discussion about these issues, and norms were established in the Vatican, that is true," asserted Father Peter Gumpel, the priest in charge of Pius XII's beatification process. "But they were far more explicit and far clearer and far more benign." The Church's defenders say this while misleading the public about the directive's real contents. They say, without evidence, that few Jewish children were baptized--as if diminishing the number of victims alters the criminal nature of the policy. Or they pretend that the only children at issue are ones freely baptized by Jewish parents (as if any baptisms performed by desperate parents to save their children from extermination were freely chosen), which Foxman, in any case, proves is untrue. Or--relying selectively on an ambiguous and inconclusive Vatican document of September 28, 1946 (released only because of the brewing scandal)--they claim, as William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, has, that the Vatican policy was "the very opposite" of what the French directive ordered and what the Church was clearly doing in at least some cases.
The apologists say--as Pius XII biographer Philippe Chenaux did recently--that it is only our contemporary sensibilities that are offended, as if at the time the Church's practice was normal and acceptable. Or they say that it has always been the Church's practice to take baptized children for itself (as if to say, "What is the big deal if Pius XII ran roughshod over Holocaust victims and their children?"). Worse, some of the Church's defenders imply that the Church's baptismal policy, which they claim to be God's, is beyond criticism and gives the Church the right to separate Jewish parents and children permanently. In the words of Father Blet, the Church historian, to assert "the primacy of bonds of blood [over the Church's baptismal claim] may be racism." He says this in 2005.
These assertions--that it is only we today who are "shocked" by the Church's practice and that the Church was innocently doing what it had always done--are plain lies. In 1858, when Pope Pius IX refused to return the kidnapped "baptized" six-year-old Jewish child Edgardo Mortara to his Jewish parents, it led to European and American revulsion, vehement protests, and demonstrations; it contributed to the Church's loss of its temporal rule over much of Italy and weakened the Church enormously; it became one of the greatest international scandals of the nineteenth century. The Church's defenders know but avoid mentioning all of this. They also know that, during and after the Holocaust, Pius XII and others in the Church were well aware that the world would condemn as cruel a policy that further systematically victimizes Holocaust survivors and that might produce 1,000 Mortaras. That is why Pius XII and the Church to this day kept all this secret. The Church's defenders never mention, when justifying Pius XII's policy as being faithful to the Church's "traditions" and institutional code, that these practices were, according to civil law, a crime.
We do not know the extent to which this Papal kidnapping policy was implemented. That is why there must be a complete investigation of the facts by an independent, international commission with full access to Vatican and European national Church records and archives, led by an eminent person and staffed by knowledgeable researchers, similar to the Bergier Commission, which finally got to the bottom of the Swiss gold and bank scandal. If the Church's apologists are right in any of their claims, the investigation could show this definitively. Yet my call for such an investigation was attacked by Father Giovanni Sale in Avvenire, the newspaper owned by the Episcopal conference in Italy, as a "provocation" against the authority of the Church beyond reasonableness and good sense. The Church does not want us to know whether it kept dozens, hundreds, or more Jewish children. The Church's conspicuous failure to address the known kidnapping cases, including Foxman's, is indicative and self-indicting. In the perverse world of Church apologists, it is far more disturbing that people want the truth to come out about the Church's kidnapping policy than that the Church had such a policy. Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian of the Pontifical Household, declared that "the search for the historical truth is not helped by fueling controversies and suspicions." He appears to prefer the Church's veil of secrecy to what he terms the current "disagreeable episode." The historian Giorgio Rumi speaks of an "anti-Catholic inquisition."
In light of these twin scandals--the Church's policy and practice of kidnapping, and then the Church's representatives' stonewalling and justifications of this cruel policy--four sets of questions demand answers:
When and why did the Pope "approve" or order the kidnapping policy? To the extent it was implemented, who was responsible for doing so? How many children did the Church keep after the war? What happened to them? And why is the Church today not notifying them and their families of what it did to them?
Second, why have the Vatican and national European Catholic churches not yet unequivocally repudiated this principle and practice of keeping Jewish children as immoral and a grave violation (if it is) of Catholic doctrine?
Third, the Church's refusal to repudiate Pius XII's kidnapping policy--grounded in the sacrament of baptism, which has not changed--has disturbing implications. Where else since World War II has the Church pursued a policy of taking children from their parents? Is the Church practicing this policy anywhere in the world today, including in developing countries, where the Church remains a powerful institution and destitute people have few legal and political protections? If not, then let the Vatican say so explicitly and condemn the underlying principle.
If the Church has abandoned this historic practice reaffirmed 60 years ago by Pius XII, when exactly did it change this policy? (Some unattributed hint to the Times that this criminal policy was "relaxed"--whatever that might mean--at some unspecified time in the 1960s is hardly adequate or convincing.)
Finally, why does the Church wish to justify and sanctify this policy and this man? What kinds of crimes and moral transgressions would finally be sufficient for this Church not to sanctify this pope? Is systematically spreading hatred and bigotry against a people while they are being persecuted and slaughtered not enough? Is approving Nazified race laws persecuting an entire people not enough? Is failing to command bishops and priests subject to his absolute authority not to participate in the deportations of tens of thousands of people to their deaths not enough? Is ordering a policy of kidnapping children--and from people who had been through the Nazi hell to boot--not enough? Then let the Church say what would be enough.
Putting the claims of the Church, the protection of its self-image as unfailingly holy, before the rights and wellbeing of children, echoes its initial reaction to the priestly sex abuse scandal. In that case--after immense public outcry, pressure, and legal action--the American Catholic Church finally came clean by commissioning investigations and condemning the crimes it had once concealed, tolerated, and, in practice, abetted. The Catholic Church must similarly be held accountable for the kidnapping of Jewish children. Or does this particular Church in the twenty-first century still believe it alone is above the law of civilized societies, which holds that parents' and children's rights supersede any imperial religious claim to take possession of powerless small bodies and souls?