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.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection