The Vatican secretly issued instructions to the Catholic church in France not to return Jewish children to their families after World War II, it emerged on Tuesday.
The children were entrusted to the church's care to save them from the death camps. But if the parents survived the war and came forward to reclaim their sons or daughters, the children were only to be returned "provided [they] have not received baptism," the Vatican ordered.
The instructions, contained in a letter dated Oct. 20 1946, were sent by the Holy Office, the Vatican department responsible for church discipline, to the future Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli, who at that time was the Holy See's envoy in Paris. The letter was published yesterday by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
The letter ends with the words: "Please note that this decision has been approved by the Holy Father." This may well have been a warning to the then Monsignor Roncalli, who, in his previous job as the pope's nuncio, or ambassador, in Istanbul, was suspected by some in the Vatican of an excessively pro-Jewish outlook.
The letter deals a new and crushing blow to the reputation of the wartime pope, Pius XII.
Research for a film released two years ago by the documentary maker Aviva Slesin concluded that fewer than than 10 percent of the 1.5 million Jewish children living in Europe in 1939 survived the conflict. In a desperate attempt to save their sons and daughters, many parents made arrangements with Christian couples or left them in orphanages.
The Vatican's letter indicates that Pope Pius wanted both to obstruct and minimize the return of those children who had been put in the church's care. "Children who have been baptized may not be entrusted to institutions that are not in a position to guarantee them a Christian upbringing," it said.
The position with regard to unbaptized Jewish children was more complicated.
The Vatican's officials ruled that those who had lost their parents ought not to be entrusted to "persons who have no rights over them." Only where the parents had re-emerged to claim their children was it permissible for them to be handed back, and even then only if they had not been christened.
The revelation represents a fresh setback for the cause of Pius XII's canonization. The present Pope is known to have wanted to beatify his predecessor as a first step towards declaring him a saint.
But the process was halted by a host of articles, books and films questioning Pius XII's failure to speak out publicly against Nazism and, in particular, the Holocaust.
His record is still a matter of heated dispute and the controversy surrounding him is unlikely to be resolved until the Vatican opens its wartime archives.