The wartime Croatian archbishop's canonisation is being held up by a deceptive campaign

Four boxes of documents in the Croatian state archives in Zagreb are what remain of the so-called “Dossier Stepinac”, the UDBA (Yugoslav secret police) files relating to Blessed Alojzije Stepinac, cardinal archbishop of Zagreb.

The papers have over the years been weeded, and the full collection should be much larger. But what is left confirms the malice with which President Tito and the regime treated Stepinac from the time of his show trial in 1946 to his suspicious death in internment in 1960. (The official post-mortem has been exposed as fabrication and more recent analysis of the remains of the body suggests poisoning.)

The files confirm that the authorities suppressed evidence and excluded defence witnesses at his trial. The archbishop was spied upon all the time in internment, including by his own secretary, an UDBA agent. The priest in question was later liquidated in an arranged “accident” when he was on his way to Rome, presumably because of the risk that he would compromise his controllers.

Stepinac had been sentenced to 16 years’ hard labour. He thus shared the fate of other Catholic victims of Stalinism in Central and Eastern Europe – Cardinal Slipyj, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Beran, archbishop of Prague, and Cardinal Mindszenty, the Hungarian prince primate and archbishop of Esztergom. Although unlike them, Stepinac has been proclaimed Blessed (by Pope St John Paul II in 1998), he is also the victim of a potent campaign of vilification. Devised by the communists, this has been taken up by the Serbian state and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Serbian protests in 2015 prompted Pope Francis to postpone the canonisation of Stepinac – even though the required miracle had been verified. Instead, a Vatican-chaired joint commission of Serbian Orthodox and Catholic experts is meeting to investigate Stepinac’s behaviour – though the outcome will not bear on the question of canonisation itself.

The Pope’s decision was an unprecedented gesture towards ecumenism. It is so far unreciprocated. The Serbian government has responded with a ferocious campaign against Stepinac, even mis-attributing a (fascist) Ustasha leader’s words to the archbishop in the text of an official protest note to Croatia.

In reality, no further investigation of the historical circumstances of the Stepinac case is required. A huge volume of evidence is available, which I have read and used in my book. (One must be able to read Croatian to access it, but the material itself is not complex.) The relevant Vatican documents have also been in print for many years, though the archive itself remains closed for that period.

Although like most Croats he supported the creation of an independent state of Croatia, Stepinac was within weeks in conflict with the new state’s Ustasha rulers because of their brutal treatment of Jews, Serbs and other opponents. Contrary to the accusation at his trial, Stepinac, with the support of Pius XII, strongly opposed pressure placed by the state authorities on Serbian Orthodox to “convert” to Catholicism, thus becoming “Croats”. (He privately told priests to allow such “conversions” without question when someone’s life was at risk, accepting that they would return to their own faith when, in his words, “this time of madness and savagery passes”.)

Stepinac’s sermons denouncing Ustasha racism, nationalism, the taking of hostages and all kinds of brutality were secretly copied and circulated by the Partisans. The contents were broadcast by Tito’s radio station. Above all, in the files we can leaf through the records of the archbishop’s interventions – 200 pages of names were sent to the court, but suppressed. Stepinac intervened for Jews threatened with deportation, for Serbs and communists facing execution, for families in the camps, and above all, for children.

Some 7,000 mostly Serbian children, whose Partisan parents had fled, or been killed or imprisoned after the defeat of Partisan forces at the battle of Kozara in western Bosnia in 1942, were the focus of a massive effort by Stepinac. The children were boarded with Catholic institutions and families until their relatives could come and find them. Some were eventually adopted and raised inside or outside Croatia. Not a word of appreciation has ever been expressed by Serbia or the Serbian Orthodox Church for this – later the communists claimed the credit for it.

Stepinac regarded communism as what he called mendacium incarnatum, the Lie Incarnate. He never believed it could triumph. He wrote to his friend, the sculptor Ivan Meštrović, eight months before his own death: “Satan lost the battle on Calvary, and I am certain that he will lose it on the Calvary of the mystical Christ, that is the Church, which today is passing over its own Golgotha.” Yet diabolic falsehoods have a strange attraction. Each new generation seems keen to recirculate them – as this one is with Stepinac.

This article first appeared in the November 4 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here