NEW YORK—A British journalist- author's book Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII has triggered a groundswell of criticism by experts and Jewish observers.

“I personally feel that to call Pope Pius XII ‘Hitler's Pope’ is a little bit peculiar and certainly out of place,” Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for B'nai B'rith, told the Register.

John Cornwell investigated the life of Pope Pius XII with Vatican approval, and concluded that the late Pope was an anti-Semite who was well-informed about the extent of Nazi persecution of Jews but failed to condemn it. His allegations are excerpted in the October edition of Vanity Fair magazine and have been repeated in many newspapers, including USA Today.

But Eugene Fisher, an expert on Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Cornwell's claims “sound like little more than an attempt to sell books.”

Fisher pointed out that Cornwell also wrote Thief in the Night, a book about the death of Pope John Paul I. The book dwells on “overescalated rumors that the Pope was murdered and then debunks them in the last chapter.”

Fisher added, “Judging from his ability to leap-frog from virtually nothing to a book in the Pope John Paul I matter, who knows what he can come up with. He is a journalist, but not a historian or scholar.”

Cornwell, was traveling and unavailable to comment for this article, according to his publisher, Viking Press.

Rabbi Klenicki at B'nai B'rith questioned the new book even though he is sympathetic to questions about Pius XII. “I do think Pius XII was concerned about Stalinism and the influence of communism in Europe at that time,” the rabbi said. “And he chose the lesser of two evils — which was Nazism. He was not a Nazi, but he should have been more against Nazism than he was during his pontificate.”

But records show that he did, according to Jesuit Father Vincent T.O'Keefe. Father O'Keefe, a longtime assistant to then Jesuit Superior General Father Pedro Arrupe, pointed to 20 years of work by four Jesuits who compiled 12 volumes of material about Pius XII from formerly secret Vatican archives.

Father O'Keefe said the archival material answers many of the claims made by Cornwell, as explained in a book by Jesuit historian Father Pierre Blet (see interview, inset).

Father O'Keefe said troubles arise from a misreading of the archives by journalists like Cornwell. “I'm not shocked that writers are saying things like this about the Pope,” he acknowledged. “It is a case of writers from time to time scanning the documents and coming up with story ideas — like investigative reporters, not historians and scholars.”

He said non-scholars using the Vatican archives should “be infinitely more careful to avoid what could become shooting from the hip.”

Sister Margherita Marchione, of the Filippini Sisters of Morristown, N.J., author of books and papers on Pope Pius XII, suspected the Cornwell book is aimed at delaying or halting the efforts long under way to beatify and canonize the pope.

“Cornwell's new book is clever, sensational propaganda aimed at influencing the eventual canonization process,” she told the Register. Nonetheless, she said, “There will be a lot of sales of the book even though it already is proven phony.”

She said there were “many inaccuracies” in the book and cited one:

“I am perplexed by the quotes from Cornwell that when Cardinal Pacelli came to power in 1939 as pope, he knew about Hitler's plan for a Final Solution,” she said. “How could that be — since Hitler's extermination program was not finalized and implemented until several years later?”

Thomas Nash, director of Catholics United for the Faith, said, “After scrutinizing the matter, people will find the overwhelming evidence from Jewish and secular sources that Pius XII — dating back to his cardinal days and through the war — did in fact do much for, and spoke out clearly on behalf, of Jews as a friend in word and deed.

“So, it is my hope that this new, and shall we hope last, desperate attempt to discredit Pope Pius XII in an attempt to derail his beatification, will boomerang and actually speed up the process.”

Robert Holton writes from Memphis, Tennessee.