VATICAN CITY — A Jesuit historian-priest has accused Jewish historians of “irresponsible” behavior that has “poisoned” the work of a joint Jewish-Catholic panel investigating the Church and the Holocaust.

The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission to suspend its work July 20, claiming it was unfairly denied access to Vatican documents dated after 1923.

But Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, postulator of the cause of World War II-era Pope Pius XII, said that 3 million pages of documents have not yet been cataloged and thus are not yet usable by scholars.

Some critics of Pius XII have claimed that he failed to take actions that could have saved the lives of Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany. The commission was charged with investigating those claims.

The panel has three Jewish and two Catholic members. Father Peter Gumpel criticized the panel's Jewish members.

In a written declaration authorized by the Vatican, Father Gumpel said, “From the beginning of the work, some — not all — of the members of the Jewish component of the group publicly spread the suspicion that the Holy See was trying to conceal documents that, in its judgment, would have been compromising. These persons then repeatedly leaked distorted and tendentious news, communicating it to the international press.”

The commission contended that the Vatican has not offered it access to the archives necessary for its research.

The suspension of the commission's activities was communicated in a July 20 letter addressed to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Relations with Judaism, who is directing the initiative. Elan Steinberg, director of the Jewish World Congress, reported the decision to the New York media.

The commission was established in 1999 to probe accusations that Pius XII avoided public condemnation of Nazi atrocities. The group initially comprised three Jewish historians and three Catholics, who were reduced to two after Eva Flieschner resigned.

On June 21, Cardinal Kasper requested the preparation of a final report by the historians. The request, made in a letter, acknowledged that the Vatican archives, from 1923 onward, are not accessible to researchers for technical reasons.

On July 20, the five historians responded with a letter addressed to the cardinal, in which they said that “without a positive response to our respectful request” to study these archives, the commission's conclusions are not credible. Therefore, they suspended their work.

Professor Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto, one of the three Jews on the commission, said that this “does not necessarily mean the end of our work. I believe we must continue at a certain level, although the Vatican's support in this topic would have been very useful.”

Other Jewish spokesmen were more direct in their criticism of the Vatican. Seymour Reich, the Jewish coordinator of the commission, said he feels “very disappointed with the Vatican's lack of response.”

Robert S. Wistrich, a Jewish member of the panel and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the Jerusalem Post that the Vatican is “not really interested in allowing us to pursue our work further.”

“Whatever expectation they [the Vatican] had of the panel — that we would give carte blanche to Pius’ beatification, or that the situation would be defused without probing too deeply — they were wrong,” Wistrich said.

Commenting on the matter, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior cited a “lack of Vatican cooperation” which prompted the suspension. Melchior said he “expects the Vatican to cooperate in the worldwide effort to expose the truth of the Holocaust period and open its archives.”

But Catholics involved with the commission have rejected the claim that the Vatican was not cooperating properly.

Eugene Fisher, Catholic coordinator of the commission and adviser of the U.S. bishops’ conference on Catholic-Jewish relations, said that two archivists are working as fast as possible to catalogue the Vatican's post-1922 documents. He added: “The question is not if the documents are published, but when. It is only a question of time.”

Father Gerald Fogarty, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the two remaining Catholic historians on the commission, said that he does not think the Vatican is concealing evidence that would implicate Pius XII. “I doubt that there is a smoking pistol in those documents,” he said.

Father Fogarty and the commission's other Catholic member, Father John Morley, a professor at Seton Hall University, said they do not support Reich's allegations against the Vatican.

They said it was unfair for Reich to fault the Vatican's two interfaith liaisons — Cardinal Kasper and retired Cardinal Edward Cassidy — for not granting greater access.

The two professors said if they had known how Reich would use the committee's joint statement, they would not have signed it.

“We did not sign [the letter] in a sense of protest against the Vatican or in what Mr. Reich characterizes as ‘deep disappointment’ at the Vatican for not giving us the response we may have desired,” they said.

“As historians, we are on record as stating we would like the archives to be open, but neither Cardinal Cassidy nor Cardinal Kasper are in a position to promise or guarantee that opening.”

(From combined wire services)