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Croatian connection remains most debated aspect of Vatican’s World War II legacy


In the quest to document the whereabouts of assets looted during World War II, the most contested issue touching the Catholic church concerns its role in Croatia under the fascist Ustasha movement.

In 1941, Croatia declared itself independent with the support of the Nazis -- and with the blessing of Catholic leaders. The church had for centuries functioned as a bearer of Croatian national pride, suppressed under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later as part of Yugoslavia.

The Ustashi carried out mass deportations and executions of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. Exactly what church officials knew about these atrocities and whether its denunciation of them was energetic enough continues to be debated.

The controversy gained new life with John Paul’s decision to beatify Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac Oct. 3, despite opposition from Jewish groups. Primate of the Croatian church during the war, Stepinac was later convicted by Yugoslavia’s Socialist government of war crimes for collaboration with the Ustashi. Defenders dismiss the conviction, pointing to Stepanic’s public criticism of the regime’s brutality.

New evidence suggesting a tie between the Vatican and the Ustashi surfaced last July. The key finding was an intelligence report, quoting a “reliable source,” that looted Ustasha gold, worth approximately $170 million in today’s dollars, had been held at the Vatican for safekeeping at war’s end, then moved to Spain and Argentina.

The report escaped the attention of U.S. investigators but was uncovered by researchers working on a documentary for the A&E cable channel.

The Holy See has denied the charges. “Regarding the gold looted by the Nazis in Croatia, searches done in the Vatican archives confirm the inexistence of documents related to the subject and thus refute any kind of supposed transaction related to the Holy See,” papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls told the Associated Press in December 1997.

Greg Bradsher, director of the Holocaust-era Assets Project for the American government, acknowledged that the evidence linking the Vatican with Ustasha gold is tenuous.

“I wouldn’t call it flimsy,” he told NCR. “But the evidence in many respects is raw intelligence data from primarily OSS [Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. World War II military intelligence agency] reports. These are not necessarily long reports -- oftentimes it’s just a one-page intelligence document.

“You have to figure out what the source is, how reliable it is, is this the first time this person has supplied information. There’s just a piece of paper here, a piece of paper there and they’re just being uncovered one by one. We’re talking about millions of documents, millions of pages.”

On the other hand, Bradsher noted that the final U.S. report on the matter of the Ustasha treasury concluded, “It seems unlikely they [the Vatican] were entirely unaware of what was going on.”

Bradsher said the general outlines of the relationship between the Vatican and the Ustashi are well-established and set out in the same U.S. report.

The College of San Girolamo degli Illirici, which housed Croatian priests studying in Rome, was a center of Ustasha activity during the war. Afterward, Fr. Stefano Dragonovic lived there as a representative of the Red Cross. Dragonovic was a former Ustasha colonel and an official of the “Ministry for Internal Colonization,” the Croatian office responsible for confiscating Serb property in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Exploiting his Red Cross contacts, Dragonovic arranged the escape from Europe of scores of Ustasha personnel sought by the allies as war criminals. According to the U.S. report, Dragonovic also played a role in the escape of Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyons,” who for years after the war acted as a U.S. intelligence agent. The United States ended that relationship only in 1962.

Bradsher said that evidence simply proves that the Ustashi were operating out of a papal facility. It does not prove conclusively that the Holy See knew about, or connived in, the goings-on.

Researchers told NCR that they doubt that even unfettered access to Vatican archives would settle the question in a way that would satisfy everybody.

“Is there a smoking gun?” said Francis Blouin, America’s leading expert on the archives. “My guess is that it’s unlikely. A judicious reading of the documents could lead you in certain directions, but I’m less certain there is a huge cache of documents that will scream out at you and solve these questions.” Blouin spoke to NCR by telephone Sept. 23.

More likely, Blouin said, studying the documents would give researchers a general impression of the Vatican’s attitude towards the Ustashi.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998