VATICAN CITY -- For years the Vatican has struggled to defend its wartime pope, Pius XII, against claims he was anti-Semitic and didn't do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Now the Vatican is taking the extraordinary step of opening part of its secret archives ahead of schedule, in a bid to silence attacks against a man it is considering for sainthood. Starting Saturday, millions of Vatican documents from the years leading up to World War II will be available to scholars.
The Vatican's chief archivist says he doesn't expect any "shocking revelations" to emerge from the documents -- and it will no doubt be months if not years before any findings are published. But Roman Catholic and Jewish scholars say the papers may answer some questions about the policies that shaped Pius' papacy and what the Vatican knew about anti-Semitism in Europe before the war.
Jewish scholars in particular praised the opening, which is occurring a few years ahead of schedule at the express wish of Pope John Paul II.
They say it showed the Vatican's private archive was professional, responsible and responsive to the needs of scholars.
"I think that every person goes into an archive with the hope that they will find a document that will turn the way we think about these things," said Rabbi Michael Signer, a professor of Jewish thought and culture at the Catholic University of Notre Dame who has studied in the Vatican Library.
"So this will augment and complement material that we already have from local archives," he said in a telephone interview.
However, Jewish groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center said the documents will only confirm that Pius XII was silent in the face of the Holocaust despite knowing of its atrocities.
"I believe that if John Paul II had been pope during the Holocaust, the events never would have occurred. He would never have remained silent because he has proven himself to be a person of conscience," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The documents come from Vatican missions in Munich and Berlin and from the office of its secretary of state in Rome. They cover the Vatican's relations with Germany from 1922 to 1939. During those years, Pius XII was a Vatican diplomat in Germany and later its secretary of state.
He became pope in 1939 and served until 1958.
Missing are 1931-1934 files from the papal nuncio's palace in Berlin, which were ruined by Allied bombing in 1945.
Also available to researchers starting Saturday are wartime archives from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican watchdog of Church orthodoxy. These include documents on the Vatican's views on racism, fascism, Nazism, and eugenics, among other issues -- files scholars say could be enormously important in understanding the intellectual climate of Europe that allowed Nazism to thrive.
Later this year, the Vatican is expected to publish on CD-ROM a general inventory of its dossier on prisoners of war dating from 1939-1947, a block of more than 3,000 folders with references to more than 3.5 million prisoners from across Europe.
The Vatican set up offices during WWII to help relatives trace family members.
"This is a small contribution that the Vatican archives wants to give to study, and also (to show) the enormous charity undertaken by Pius XII," said the Vatican's chief archivist, the Rev. Sergio Pagano.
Pius XII, born Eugenio Pacelli in Rome on March 2, 1876, has been portrayed by some historians and Jews as an anti-Semite who failed to use his power to speak out against the Nazi genocide.
Critical books such as the 1999 bestseller "Hitler's Pope," by John Cornwell, have riled the Vatican, which has insisted Pius used quiet diplomacy that saved thousands of Jewish lives.
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, the German investigator promoting Pius XII's cause for sainthood, wrote in 1999 that "no one of whatever station or organization did as much to help the Jews as did Pius XII."
In an article for the British publication The Tablet, Gumpel said Pius couldn't speak out more publicly because he knew it would enrage Adolf Hitler and result in more Jews being killed. He cited the case of Catholic bishops in the Netherlands who spoke out against the deportation of Jews and the Gestapo's response: deporting Jews who had converted to Catholicism.
In 1999, the Vatican announced the formation of a panel of Jewish and Catholic experts to review published material from its archives to try to shed light on Pius's actions.
The panel issued a preliminary report in 2000, describing a pope bent on fruitless diplomacy while reports of atrocities poured into the Vatican. They posed 47 questions that required further answers.
The group suspended work in 2001, saying they couldn't proceed without more documents from the archives.
Seymour Reich, the Jewish coordinator of the panel, said in an interview this week that the release of the prewar documents was "a step in the right direction."
He said at least four of the 47 questions posed by the panel concerned the prewar period and could be answered by the documents. However, he stressed that most of the answers would likely only be found in the archives of Pius XII's pontificate -- which aren't scheduled for release for several years.
Eugene Fisher, the Catholic co-coordinator of the defunct panel, said the documents from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith are especially important.
Those could reveal "the intellectual climate, in terms of how people were thinking theologically ... and where they were at in the Holy See in understanding the phenomena of fascism, Nazism, communism."
Monsignor Alejandro Cifres Gimenez, the archivist at the congregation, said about 90 dossiers would be made available, including Vatican denunciations on ideologies spreading through Europe.
"It's not just ideological," he said. "When we condemned Nazi books on racism, it was because they attacked humanity."