Claims of papal help for Nazi war criminals 'verifiably false'

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Portrait of Pope Pius XII inside the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

A Harvard professor's claim that Vatican leadership intentionally helped Nazi war criminals escape to South America after World War II relies on erroneous sources and misinterprets events, argues Catholic author Ronald J. Rychlak.

“The combination of sloppy work and over-the-top charges provides a textbook example of how a verifiably false account can be reported as fact in the mainstream media,” Rychlak said in the April 2012 issue of the Catholic League’s newsletter The Catalyst.

Rychlak, the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi, has authored two books on Pope Pius XII’s actions during World War II. He critiqued Harvard Divinity School professor Kevin Madigan’s essay “How the Catholic Church Sheltered War Criminals,” published in the December 2011 issue of the neoconservative magazine Commentary.

Madigan contended that the Pontifical Aid Commission supplied “crucial aid in sheltering Nazi war criminals.” The commission, he claimed, viewed itself as “a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists.”

Madigan's essay indicated that this support took place with the whole-hearted support of Pius XII.

But Rychlak countered that the commission helped “hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees” and that some Nazi war criminals took advantage of this.

“Madigan would have us believe that the Church knowingly sent Nazi officials to safety,” he said. “It is, however, inconceivable that the Nazis revealed their background to reputable Church officials. It is even less likely that any such information would have reached the Vatican. The logistics of the massive relocation programs simply made it impossible to investigate most individuals who sought help.”

Part of the controversy centers on Bishop Alois Hudal, a Nazi-sympathizing rector of the German-speaking seminary college of Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome.

“It has long been known that Hudal and a Croatian priest named Krunoslav Draganović helped some former Nazis escape from Europe. Madigan, however, says that they were part of ‘a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists’,” Rychlak said. “That is far from the truth.”

Bishop Hudal was not on friendly terms with the Vatican leadership, Rychlak explained.

The bishop’s memoir said that the assistance he gave to fleeing Nazis was done without the Pope’s knowledge. He authored a book “critical of the hard line that Vatican diplomats took with the Germans,” Rychlak reported.

In 1949, the bishop asked the Vatican to defend him from press attacks. Then-Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, a top advisor to Pius XII who would be elected Pope Paul VI, replied “there is no defense for a Nazi bishop.”

Pope Pius XII refused to meet with a group of Austrian pilgrims organized by the bishop if the bishop accompanied them.

Rychlak also questioned the reliability of Madigan’s sources.

Madigan’s Commentary essay drew on Gerald Steinacher’s book “Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice” and David Cymet’s book “History vs. Apologetics: The Holocaust, the Third Reich, and the Catholic Church.”

According to Rychlak, Madigan “confounded” Steinacher’s points and wrongly said that he wrote that Pope Pius XII favored an “extensive amnesty” for war criminals.

“That is not what Steinacher wrote, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Rychlak said.

He cited Pius XII’s repeated public stands in favor of punishing war criminals and his provision of evidence for use against Nazi defendants. The Pope assigned a Jesuit to assist prosecutors of accused war criminals.

Steinacher in fact attributed the advocacy amnesty to a German bishop working in Rome, but this interpretation is a misreading, Rychlak said.

He focused on Steinacher’s examination of two letters between Bishop Alois Hudal, rector of the German-speaking seminary college in Rome, and then-Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI.

Bishop Hudal’s May 5, 1949 letter to Msgr. Montini sought amnesty for German soldiers. Steinacher’s book, which incorrectly dates the letter, erroneously reported that the bishop sought pardon for war criminals, Rychlak said.

“Actually, Hudal expressed sympathy for political prisoners who had already spent four years in prison, but he never mentioned nationalities, war criminals, or soldiers,” Rychlak wrote.

Besides these problems in Madigan’s essay, Rychlak objected to its claims regarding the treatment of Jewish children entrusted to Catholic institutions for their safety during the war. Some of the children were taught Christianity and baptized.

It is “nonsense” to say that the Pope refused to let any baptized Jewish child be returned to his or her parents, Rychlak said. He characterized this as a “false charge” based on Cymet’s book, which draws on an incorrect summary of a 1946 document on the topic.

“Madigan should have done his homework before spreading these malicious charges,” Rychlak said.

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