Accuracy in Media

On Sunday, January 9, the New York Times published an article which reignited the controversy over how the Catholic Church dealt with returning sheltered Jewish children to their parents and communities after World War II. The focus of the article was on a directive allegedly issued by the Vatican under Pope Pius XII. The name Pius XII is inextricably linked with that of John Paul II, who during his recent illness was claimed to have said, “I will not die before I canonize Pope Pius XII.” Both popes were notably anti-communist, and both were targeted by critics for their return to traditionalism.

The Times article, “Saving Jewish Children, but at What Cost?” by Elaine Sciolino and Jason Horowitz, began with the claim that in October 1946, a year after the defeat of the Nazis, “[T]he Vatican weighed in” on the issue of the sheltered children with a “newly disclosed directive on the subject.” The one-page, typewritten directive that the New York Times reported on was dated Oct. 23, 1946 and was “discovered in a French church archive outside Paris.” The story relayed that the document was “made available to the New York Times on the condition the source would not be disclosed.”

The most controversial part of the directive relayed by the Times was this statement: “If the children have been turned over by the parents, and if the parents reclaim them now, providing that the children have not received baptism, they can be given back.” The sentence seemed to indicate that if Jewish children had been baptized, they would not be returned to their Jewish parents or relatives. Other news organizations followed the cue of the Times in repeating the story, and even filming interviews with holocaust survivors who were shown becoming emotionally undone by the news the reporters gave them. One distraught woman seemed scarcely able to contain her despair at the thought family members may have actually survived but were kept from her by the Vatican.

The evidence, however, indicates the directive was not from the Vatican. As the Times article itself notes, it was written in French, not Italian, as was customary for Vatican directives, nor is it on papal stationery. The directive was also unsigned. Yet despite all the red flags, the Times clung to the notion of authenticity because of a dangling sentence at the end of the memo, which claimed: “It should be noted that this decision taken by the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father.”

Despite the fact the letter bore no marks of an authentic Vatican directive, and despite the fact it carried a Paris dateline, the New York Times called it the “1946 Letter from Vatican” and published an English translation of it on the Times website. The posting, and title, are still on the New York Times site. Are New York Times staffers now under the impression the Vatican is in Paris? Or perhaps they think Rome is in Paris?

Considering that Times reporter Elaine Sciolino reported from Paris for the article and Jason Horowitz reported from Rome, it would seem that original research would have been par for the course for an article like this. However, it appears the Times report contained no original research, and was simply taking another newspaper’s word for it. The Times article followed on the heels of an article published on December 28, 2004 by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. The article, “Pius XII to Nuncio Roncalli: Do Not Return The Jewish Children,” was written by Italian professor Alberto Melloni. Melloni, a left-wing critic of Pius XII and John Paul II, referred to the document as having come from an unidentified French archive and being “a disposition of the Holy Office.” Melloni played the World War II papal nuncio in France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, against Pope Pius XII, suggesting that Roncalli reunited Jewish children with their relatives despite what Pius had ordered. (This despite the fact Roncalli has been hailed by Jewish leaders for his dedication to returning the children, and responded by saying he didn’t deserve special credit since he was simply following the orders of Pope Pius XII.)

On January 11, the Italian daily Il Giornale carried a front-page story by journalist Andrea Tornielli and historian Matteo Luigi Napolitano debunking the memo and Melloni’s story. The article, “Here is the real document of Pius XII and the Jewish children” ran alongside another article on “The Hasty Scoop of Professor Melloni.” In addition, Ronald J. Rychlak reported that the newspaper Il Foglio stated, “Now it is no longer a case of Pius XII. It is no longer a case of Roncalli. It is a case of Melloni.” William Diono Jr. wrote up the Italian researchers’ findings in English as part of an article for the January-February edition of “Inside the Vatican.”

It turns out the directive was not a standalone document, but was part of a three-page dossier housed at the Centre National des Archives de L’Eglise de France. Historian Matteo Luigi Napolitano told AIM that the French memo was discovered by an anonymous student researcher who gave a copy of it to her professor: “It was discovered by an anonymous researcher who transmitted it to her professor, and I suppose the latter passed it to Melloni. The document was newly-discovered since it pertained to a private archive and to a closed dossier. For sure, the researcher who discovered it did not suppose it was going to be published in Italy by Melloni.” After the initial story broke, Napolitano then discovered the three-page dossier himself, and the original Vatican directive contained therein, and soon informed Tornielli about it. Their scoop debunking the letter followed.

It’s too bad the New York Times didn’t exercise the curiosity that Napolitano did.  The unauthorized French memo was a poor translation of a true Vatican directive, which it was attached to. A serious reader would have compared the French memo to the original Italian, Diono pointed out. The most damning sentence in the French memo, the one stating that Jewish children who had been baptized were not to be returned to their parents, was not in the Vatican directive. The Vatican directive deals solely with children “who no longer have living relatives” and states that “[T]hey cannot be abandoned by the Church or delivered to parties who have no right to them.” The Vatican instruction advises that each case must be reviewed individually, adding, “Things would be different if the children were requested by the relatives.” Nevertheless, neither the Corriere della Sera nor the New York Times mentioned the context within which the memo was found, its location, or the nature of the true Vatican directive it was attached to.

Ronald J. Rychlak, a Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi, wrote an article on the debunked memo for The article was also reprinted in the publication, Inside the Vatican. In it Rychlak notes Jewish historian Michael Tagliacozzo, a leading authority on and survivor of the 1943 Nazi roundup of Roman Jews, wrote in the Italian newspaper Avvenire, “Pius XII kidnapper of children? But let us be done with such foolishness!” Tagliacozzo confirmed that Jewish children were returned to their parents as soon as possible. The historian told author William Doino, Jr., “I have a folder on my table in Israel entitled ‘Calumnies Against Pius XII’?Without him, many of our own would not be alive.” Tagliacozzo is one of many prominent Jewish scholars, historians, political and religious figures who have praised the Pope for his actions in sheltering and saving Jews during World War II. The Pope authorized millions of dollars for secret operations to save Jews in Europe, supported a plot to overthrow Hitler, was targeted for kidnapping by Hitler, and in addition to ordering seminaries, churches and convents to open their doors to hide Jews, also filled his private summer residence at Castel Gandalfo with Jewish refugees.

Scholars William Diono Jr, Ronald J. Rychlak and others have contributed to an impressive new book titled “The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.” The book, marked by careful scholarship, eloquent but concise writing, and scrupulous attention to factual detail, is edited by Joseph Bottum and Rabbi David G. Dalin. Michael Burleigh, an acclaimed historian whose book on the Third Reich won the Samuel Johnson prize for history?our equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize?has just given the new book a sterling review in the April edition of Britain’s “Literary Review.”

Many of the scholars who contributed to the book note a ‘trend’ in accusing Pius XII, which they trace to Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” (Der Stellvertreter) which debuted in the early 1960’s. Hochhuth, a leftwing writer and former member of the Hitler Youth, succeeded in introducing the polemical meme that Pius was pro-Hitler, a meme that was later developed in such books as “Hitler’s Pope,” books which the scholars say rest more on speculation than on fact and are marred by sloppy scholarship and blatant errors. Burleigh claims that Hochhuth was “influenced heavily by KGB malignancy towards the pope of the Cold War.”

Ironically, Hochhuth and the inheritors of his meme put forth accusations which stand in stark contrast with statements by Hitler and the SS denouncing Pius XII as a threat to the Third Reich because he was a “Jew-loving” pope.

New revelations about Melloni’s discredited ‘scoop’ will be included in the forthcoming book by Matteo Luigi Napolitano and Andrea Tornielli, Roncalli e i battesimi della Shoah, scheduled for publication next month. Hopefully a publisher will offer an English-language version of the book. In addition, scholar William Diono Jr. is completing a new biography of Pius XII.

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