Vatican City — The Vatican denounced what it called a "slanderous campaign" mounted against the Roman Catholic Church over the Holocaust-era pope, Pius XII, accusing some Jewish historians Tuesday of "clearly incorrect behavior."
The Vatican was responding to the July 23 announcement that a panel of Jewish and Catholic historians investigating Pius' actions during the Holocaust had suspended work because the Vatican has not released all its archives from the World War II years.
The statement issued Tuesday angered and surprised Jewish leaders, disrupting efforts to find some way to reconcile on an issue that has been a source of contention between the Vatican and Jews for more than 40 years.
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit gathering documents to support the possible beatification of Pius XII, wrote the Vatican statement.
"In recent days a violent attack has again been unleashed against the Catholic church," the statement said. "The occasion for this slanderous campaign has been furnished by the decision of the Jewish-Catholic study group to suspend its activity."
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, called the statement a "disgraceful slap in the face to Jews and Catholics who have worked for reconciliation and understanding."
"To defend the silence of Pope Pius XII is to defend the indefensible," Steinberg said.
Critics of Pius have argued that he failed to raise his voice and use his position to head off the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis.
In Tuesday's statement, Gumpel defended Pius' actions, saying material made available to the historians showed that Pius "made every possible effort to save as many lives as possible, without any distinction."
The historians, who were appointed by the Vatican and a Jewish group to examine Pius' actions, released a preliminary report in October. They described a pope bent on fruitless diplomacy as reports of atrocities poured into the Vatican.
The historians said then that questions still needed to be answered before they could issue a final report. They expressed hope that the Vatican would open up the archives of the Holy See's correspondences to fill in the gaps in the 12 volumes of wartime documents provided by the Vatican.
In the statement, Gumpel wrote that he had met with the group and answered some of their questions and offered to answer the rest at another session, but that this was ignored.
It was therefore disconcerting, he said, that in the following months "some Jewish members in the group had systematically affirmed that they never received answers to their questions."
He also said it was "false" that the Vatican does not intend to open up its archives, saying this will be done as soon as the material is ready.