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VATICAN-ARCHIVES Jan-28-2005 (830 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Vatican not impressed with threat to sue over access to archives

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A Jewish group's recent threat to sue for access to church archives left Vatican officials unimpressed.

"It doesn't make much sense, if you know how archives function. We certainly aren't going to be intimidated," said one church expert.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, vice president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, said in Washington Jan. 27 that his group would take legal action unless the Vatican Secret Archives were opened within a week. The group believes the material could identify Jewish children baptized as Catholics during World War II.

There are a couple of reasons why such demands for documents are not taken very seriously at the Vatican.

For one thing, delayed opening of archival materials -- typically from 50 to 100 years -- is a practice adopted by states all over the world, for technical reasons and to protect archives from contemporary political pressures.

Second, the Vatican has made extraordinary efforts to open some document sections in advance in recent years -- only to find that very few scholars bother to examine the material.

"It's strange. It seems that if they can't find confirmation of their predetermined but undocumented theories, the archives can be forgotten," said Father Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives.

Father Pagano told the Italian newspaper Avvenire in January that only a trickle of experts is examining the documents regarding Vatican relations with Germany from 1922 to 1939; those documents were made available last fall, ahead of schedule.

The Vatican archives also had seven employees work for three years collating more than 3 million documents on the Holy See's quiet efforts to help prisoners of war during World War II. The material was opened last May; so far, only 10 European scholars have come to do research, Father Pagano said.

"Sometimes you get the impression that some scholars, whose voices are perhaps amplified too much by the media, demand the opening of the Vatican archives as if they wanted to battle their way into a secret fortress," Father Pagano said.

"But when the doors open and the documents can be consulted, those who seemed interested don't show up, or come for what is basically a tourist visit," he said.

In the Vatican's view, the recent controversy over a document discovered in France illustrates the dangers of amateur archival research.

The letter, discovered in French church archives, purportedly was approved by Pope Pius XII. It said Jewish children who had been baptized to save them from the Nazis were to be entrusted only to families or institutions that would guarantee their continuing education in the faith.

Jewish groups pounced on the text, saying it proved that the Vatican under Pope Pius XII did not want baptized Jewish children returned to their parents.

But Vatican experts quickly pointed out that the letter was an unsigned summary of church policies, with no clear indication of source. It was written in French and was not found in the archives of the papal nunciature in France.

Then a more complete version of the letter emerged, clarifying that church leaders were speaking of abandoned Jewish children who were in the care of church institutions, not children whose parents wanted them back.

"It would be another thing if the children were requested back by the parents," said the letter.

At the Vatican, Father Pagano oversees more than 50 miles of shelved archival documents, and the material just keeps growing. For example, he said, over the last six years, more than 5 million pieces of paper have been added to the collection.

The material is opened by pontificate, and next year the Vatican Secret Archives will make available documents from the papacy of Pope Pius XI, 1922-1939.

One reason for the delay is the monumental task of collecting, numbering and organizing the documents for consultation. At the Vatican, each document is double-checked for details like protocol numbers, handwritten notations and envelope information, so that its precise context can be established.

"It's a long, painstaking and difficult work," Father Pagano said.

For those who see something sinister in keeping all this information under lock and key, Father Pagano cites the opinions of other professional archivists, who say that letting historical documents sit untouched for several decades reduces the chance of their destruction or exploitation by people who lived too close to the period.

There are a few exceptions to the closed-door rule, however. Postulators working on sainthood causes may gain admission to the unopened archives if they need to research the life of the would-be saint.

The reason, said one church official in Rome, is that the Vatican doesn't want information springing up in the future that could call into question the holiness of someone already canonized.

Postulators cannot publish or divulge information gathered during these advance viewings of archival material, and for each visit they need permission from the Vatican secretary of state. For the church's saint makers, it's the ultimate background check.


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