Accuracy in Media

The media have extensively covered the disturbing controversy that erupted after the discovery of a secret 1946 document, purportedly from the Vatican, directing French church officials to not return sheltered Jewish children to their parents. The children in question had come under the protection of Catholic institutions and some had been baptized. The controversial document indicated those baptized should not be returned to their Jewish relatives. There has been almost no media coverage of the debunking of the Vatican as the source of the letter, however. Given the widespread media coverage of the charges and the serious allegations, further investigation needs to be done.

The 1946 letter was first published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Dec. 28 as part of an investigative piece penned by Italian historian Alberto Melloni. Melloni, discovered the letter in the diaries of World War II French Archbishop Angelo Roncalli. He later became Pope John XXIII. The letter was addressed to the office of Roncalli, who served as the Vatican’s ambassador to France from 1945-1948 and who, historians say, worked to reunite Jewish parents with their children. The unsigned letter carried a Paris dateline and was obtained by the Associated Press. The document states that Pope Pius XII (who reigned as Pope from 1939-1958) approved the directives. According to the AP, the letter summarized the views of the Vatican’s Holy Office.

The New York Times published an article on the issue on January 9, entitled “Saving Jewish Children, But at What Cost?”  The article echoed the piece in the Italian press and was based on “a one-page, typewritten directive, dated Oct. 23, 1946, (which) was discovered in a French church archive outside Paris and made available to the New York Times on condition that the source would not be disclosed.”

The Jewish community was outraged and devastated. The Jewish newspaper Forward reported that Swiss Holocaust survivor Henri Elias said the French church prevented him from being reunited with his family for nearly 12 years after the Holocaust because he was baptized. With the surfacing of the letter, many concluded Elias’ experience was widespread. Television interviews followed with Holocaust survivors who broke down in tears when interviewed by reporters about the letter.  They were understandably devastated to think that relatives of theirs may have survived, but without their knowledge.

Jewish reaction is exacerbated by stories of the case of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy who lived in Bologna, then in the civil domain of Pope Pius IX, who reigned from 1846 to 1878. Mortara had been secretly baptized by a Catholic, Anna Morsi, who was working as a maid for the family. The boy was then taken as a ward of the Pope and later became a priest. In 2000, the custody move was rationalized by Thomas Storck, writing for the Catholic Way, who noted that “Parents’ rights are not absolute” and compared the taking of a boy from his Jewish parents to intervening in physical or sexual abuse cases.

But P. Thierry, writing for Newsmax, has shed important new light on the purported Vatican memo cited by the times. He noted that, on January 11, Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli and historian Matteo Luigi Napolitano published an expos? of Melloni’s claims in the Italian newspaper, “Il Giornale.” Thierry informed English-speaking audiences that the report revealed that the October, 1946 document Melloni was presenting as a papal document was in fact an unsigned, mistranslated French memo, written by an unknown French official, misrepresenting the true directive of Pius XII, (written a month earlier), which ordered Church officials to return Jewish children to their relatives. The letter was written in French, not Italian, the official language of the Vatican, and was not produced on Vatican stationary. The original documents have been posted on Napolitano’s website (

Napolitano and Tornielli reported that the letter was drafted in response to an official dispatch, dated Sept. 28, 1946, that Father Roncalli received from Monsignor Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s secretary of the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, which stated that baptized children should be returned to their relatives.

Thierry says the Times reporting on this story has been so bad that the authors of the piece, Elaine Sciolino and Jason Horowitz, as well as Times’ Executive Editor Bill Keller, should be fired.

Since Thierry’s account of the new investigative pieces published in Italy, mainstream media have yet to comment. On February 27, the Palm Beach Post in Florida published a piece by Dimitri Cavalli which reiterated the new discoveries. But that piece was published in the “Opinion” section. In a reference to the documented seized upon by the Times, Cavalli commented, “For reasons that remain unclear, the individual who wrote the memorandum went far beyond what the Vatican specified.”

Given the seriousness of the charges, the widespread media attention given to this issue, and the widespread emotional devastation it has wrought, media have a responsibility to report on these new developments, investigate further, and press for further clarification and the truth. The matter deserves the immediate attention of Times editor Keller. He should not let this reporting scandal fester.

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