VATICAN CITY — As Pope Pius XII’s beatification process nears a crucial stage, startling evidence has come to light that further undermines the longstanding accusation that he did too little to save the Jews in World War II.

In an article published Jan. 25 by National Review Online, retired KGB general Ion Mihai Pacepa claimed Soviet agents set out to deliberately portray the wartime Pope “as a coldhearted Nazi sympathizer” as part of a “super-secret plan for destroying the Vatican’s moral authority.”

After an ineffective campaign of smearing the Holy See as being “in the pay of American imperialism,” the Kremlin changed tactics in 1960 and tried to discredit the Vatican with its own priests, according to Pacepa.

Pius XII was singled out because he had died in 1958. “Dead men cannot defend themselves,” was the KGB’s slogan at the time. Pacepa, a former Romanian agent and the highest-ranking KGB officer to defect from the Soviet bloc, claims that former Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev was behind the plan.

Pacepa recounts how, lacking evidence to besmirch Pius XII’s reputation, the KGB asked him to seek access to the Vatican secret archives. The former agent says he was instructed to use the premise that Romania was interested in seeing Vatican files to determine whether there was historical justification for restoring relations between Romania and the Holy See. Pacepa alleges the Vatican was also offered a $1 billion interest-free loan for 25 years in return for access to the archives.

Between 1960 and 1962, the former agent claims he sent hundreds of archived documents connected with Pius XII, none of which was incriminating. The KGB then “slightly modified” them.

Soon after, in 1963, a play called The Deputy, which attacked Pius XII, was written. It was the first major incident in which his reputation regarding World War II was publicly called into question.

Pacepa says the play’s producer, Erwin Piscator, was a fervent communist with close links to Moscow and that he based the play on the doctored documents that Pacepa had stolen from the Vatican archives. (The play was later abridged by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who injected even more venom than was contained in the original.)

Speaking to the Register Jan. 31, Sister Margherita Marchione, a Religious Teachers Filippini sister who has spent most of her life trying to clear Pius XII’s name, said the claims of Kremlin involvement were very plausible. She said that Archbishop Fulton Sheen had expressed his concerns about a Soviet campaign against Pius XII as early as 1946, in a letter to The New York Times.

“I really think it’s down to the communists,” said Sister Marchione, who is currently working on her latest publication on Pius XII, a question-and-answer booklet that will be published later this year. “They were so angry with the Church after the war.”

Pius XII and Vatican officials attracted the hostility of the Kremlin after repeatedly warning in the 1940s and 1950s that communism was incompatible with Church teaching. The Vatican also resisted the advance of postwar communism in Europe, particularly in Italy, where communists would almost certainly have formed a government if not for Pius XII’s plea not to vote for them.

Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, postulator of Pius XII’s cause, described Pacepa’s disclosures as “very interesting,” but he has some doubts about the ex-KGB agent’s account. In particular, like Sister Margherita, he was not aware of any evidence the KGB had infiltrated the Vatican archives.

As the Register went to press, Father Gumpel was waiting to hear from the prefect of the Vatican archives to find out whether Pacepa’s claims are true.

Pius XII’s cause, meanwhile, is progressing. Father Gumpel said that after undergoing scrutiny from historians and theologians, 3,500 pages of documentation are now being examined by a panel of cardinals and bishops.

Father Gumpel estimates that in four to five months the panel will agree to pass the paperwork on to Pope Benedict, who will then decide whether to issue a decree testifying to evidence of Pius XII’s heroic virtue and reputation for holiness. If he does, Pius XII would then be declared “venerable.”

Beatification, which will depend on verifying the authenticity of reported miracles, is a longer process, but Father Gumpel said he hoped “it will happen soon.”

If so, it will have taken place despite the Soviet campaign to discredit Pius XII and despite the critical judgments from those who believed the Kremlin’s slurs. As Pacepa noted in his National Review article, quoting former KGB chief Yury Andropov, “People are more ready to believe smut than holiness.”      

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.