On Friday, Pope Francis is to become the third Roman Catholic pope to visit Auschwitz. John Paul II was the first Polish pope in the church’s 2,000-year history. Auschwitz is less than an hour from where he was born, and his 1979 visit was poignant. Every bit as dramatic was the 2006 visit by the German-born Benedict XVI who had at 14 been a member of the Hitler Youth.
But Francis’ visit could be the most significant ever if he uses the symbolic backdrop to break with the policies of six predecessors over 70 years and order the release of the Vatican’s sealed Holocaust-era archives.
The debate over the church’s secret wartime files is not new. The Vatican is the only country in Europe that refuses to open all of its World War II archives to independent historians and researchers. The issue is more than simply an academic debate over the appropriate rules for public disclosure of historically significant documents. The church’s files are thought to contain important information about the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. The Vatican had eyes and ears in the killing fields: tens of thousands of parish priests who sent letters and reports to their bishops, who in turn forwarded them to the secretary of state in Vatican City. One of the monsignors in charge of reviewing those thousands of reports was Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI.
It is little wonder that historians are eager to study the Vatican’s Holocaust-era papers. The accounts by the parish priests may help answer lingering questions of when and what the Vatican knew about the Nazi murder machinery. The files are likely to shed light on whether the wartime pope, Pius XII, could have done more to try to stop the Holocaust. Also buried inside the secret archives are the early records of the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank, created during World War II. Those documents could resolve conclusively how much business the Vatican did with the Third Reich, as well as the extent of insurance company investments that yielded enormous profits from life insurance policies of Jews sent to Auschwitz, which I uncovered in my own reporting.
And finally, the church’s secret files might resolve the debate over whether several postwar refugee-smuggling networks that were run from Rome separately by an Austrian bishop, a German priest and a Croatian priest — and through which Nazi criminals escaped — were freelance operations, or instead parts of a program that had the pope’s blessing. ...