Throughout its long history, the Catholic Church has been rocked by scandals ranging from the dissolution of the Knights Templar to Galileo’s trial to Mother Theresa’s question donors. Over the course of the 20th century, many more scandals have come to light—no matter how much the Church would like to keep them secret.
Spain’s Stolen Children
Starting in the 1930s, the fascist regime of Francisco Franco sought to purify Spain by stealing the babies of “undesirable” parents and having them raised in more politically acceptable surroundings. The scheme originally targeted the children of leftists, who the Spanish government saw as having “a form of mental illness that was polluting the Hispanic race,” but eventually came to target unmarried mothers and otherwise “unfit” parents. As many as 300,000 babies were eventually stolen from their parents.
The baby-stealing scheme was carried out with the close cooperation of the Catholic Church in Spain. After Franco rose to power calling himself the defender of Catholic Spain, the Church controlled most of Spain’s social services—from schools to hospitals to children’s homes. This allowed thousands of children to be stolen or otherwise removed from their parents by Catholic doctors, priests, and nuns.
In many cases, nurses in Catholic hospitals would take a newborn baby from its mother to be examined. The nurse would then return with a dead baby kept on ice for the purpose of persuading the mother that her baby had suddenly died. After the babies were stolen from their mothers, they were often sold in illegal profit-making adoptions.
After Franco died in 1975, the Church retained its grasp on Spanish social services and largely continued the scheme. The child kidnappings didn’t fully come to an end until 1987, when the Spanish government began tightening adoption regulations. It has been estimated that around 15 percent of adoptions in Spain between 1960 and 1989 were part of the kidnapping scheme.
The Return of Baptized Jewish Children
While Pope Pius XII has been condemned for remaining largely silent on the Holocaust and politics of World War II, under his leadership the Catholic Church did take steps to save several thousand Jews from the Nazis. Some Italian and Hungarian Jews were issued false baptism certificates and other documents identifying them as Catholics. In France, many Jewish children were baptized and placed in Catholic schools and orphanages, effectively hiding them from the Nazis.
The problem is what happened next. When the war ended, the Catholic Church in France issued a directive forbidding its representatives from returning Jewish children who had been baptized to their families. The document, which claimed to have been “approved by the Holy Father,” firmly stated that “children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that would not be in a position to guarantee their Christian upbringing.”
Many of the children concerned had lost their parents in the Holocaust, and some were deliberately never told of their Jewish background. The issue first came to public attention in France with the case of Robert and Gerald Finally, who became the subject of a lengthy legal battle after their surviving Jewish relatives attempted to regain custody from the French Catholics who had baptized them. Other French Catholics apparently ignored the Church’s order and agreed to return the Jewish children in their care, including the future Pope John XXIII, who was the Vatican’s representative in Paris at the time. To this day it is not clear how many Jewish children the Church saved—or how many it gave back afterward.
Nazi Gold in The Vatican Bank
In 1947, a US Treasury agent named Emerson Bigelow apparently penned a highly classified report which alleged that the Catholic Church had smuggled Nazi gold through the Vatican bank. Although the report itself has been lost, a letter written by Bigelow explained that it contained information from a reliable source revealing that the Nazi’s puppet Utashe regime in Croatia had smuggled around 350 million Swiss francs in gold out of the country at the end of the war. According to Bigelow, perhaps 200 million francs of this was briefly held in the Vatican bank for safekeeping.
Bigelow’s letter also referenced information that the gold had subsequently been funneled through the “Vatican pipeline” to Spain and South America, where it was used to help Nazi and Utashe officials escape punishment for their crimes. The letter only came to light in 1997, after being declassified by the US government the year before. A spokesperson for the Vatican bank denied the claims, but the Catholic Church remains embroiled in lawsuits over its alleged laundering of Nazi gold.
In 2000, a class action lawsuit was brought by around 2,000 Holocaust survivors and relatives who sought restitution from the Vatican up to $200 million, using the Bigelow letter and other recently declassified documents to allege that the Vatican had improperly harbored gold stolen from Europe’s Jews. The suit has since stalled, with American courts split on whether the case can be tried in the US.
The Alliance With Fascism
Today, the Vatican is famously the smallest country in the world, but it hasn’t always been that way. Rome was the capital of the Papal States for hundreds of years. But after Italy was united in the 19th century, the Pope lost his temporal territories, causing a tense standoff between Church and state. The Vatican only officially became its own country again in 1929—and it did so because the Catholic Church got into bed with fascism.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party came to power, eventually abolishing democracy and forming a brutal dictatorship. In 1929, Mussolini and the Catholic Church signed the Lateran Treaty, resolving the crisis by granting the Church the status of a sovereign state within Italy. To sweeten the deal, Mussolini gave the Church a hefty cash settlement. The Church in turn used the money to create a lucrative international investment portfolio, which is now valued at around £500 million (USD $781 million).
The Church was also given a generous tax exemption and Catholic priests were given a guaranteed salary by the Italian government. The treaty also officially made Catholicism Italy’s state religion, making religion classes compulsory for all Italian schoolchildren unless a special exemption was granted.
The treaty also included a clause protecting the “dignity” of the Pope, effectively meaning that those who criticized the Church could be prosecuted. In 2008, an overzealous Roman prosecutor launched an investigation into an Italian comic who made a joke criticizing Pope Benedict. Fortunately, the attempt was blocked by the Italian Justice Ministry, a decision officially supported by the Vatican.
In return for signing the treaty, Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship received the public support of the Catholic Church and was recognized as the legitimate government of Italy, despite the fact that Mussolini had abolished democracy four years prior. After the treaty was signed, the Vatican’s official newspaper praised Mussolini, stating: “Italy has been given back to God and God to Italy.”
Hiding Child Abuse And Protecting Pedophiles
Widespread child abuse within the Catholic Church has been a problem for a long time, but the issue didn’t truly come to public attention until the late 1980s. The abuse is a huge scandal in and of itself, but the fact that it took so long to come to light speaks to an even larger crime: The Catholic Church as an institution deliberately sought to cover up child abuse and systematically protected pedophile priests.
The issue was fully brought to light in 2002, when five Catholic priests were tried in Boston for their horrifying abuse of children. One of the convicted priests, Father John Geoghan, had allegedly molested as many as 130 boys before he was caught. But Father Geoghan’s superiors had learned of his crimes long before he was charged in a court of law. Not only did the Church not turn him over the authorities, they didn’t even expel him from the priesthood. Instead, they simply reassigned him to other parishes, where he continued to abuse children with impunity.
In Wisconsin, a Catholic priest named Lawrence Murphy raped as many as 200 deaf and disabled boys at a Church-run school between 1950 and 1974. When Murphy’s superiors became aware of the abuse, they didn’t even fire him from his teaching job. Instead, they gave him a leave of absence. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Church internally investigated the abuse. However, the Church decided not to punish the child rapist because he was elderly and in poor health. Murphy died a few months later and was buried with “the full dignity and honors of a Holy Roman Catholic Priest in good standing.”
In February 2014, a special United Nations committee on child rights found that the Catholic Church had “systematically” protected priests who raped children, and is consequently responsible for allowing “tens of thousands” of children to be abused. The committee claimed that the Church has “consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests.”
The current Pope, Pope Francis, recently claimed that he had reliable data indicating that around 2 percent of Catholic clergymen are pedophiles. There are currently around 414,000 Catholic priests around the world. So according to the Pope himself, there are an estimated 8,000 pedophile priests currently working for the Catholic Church.
At the end of World War II, many Nazi war criminals attempted to flee Europe to avoid prosecution. In at least some cases, they received help from senior Catholic clergymen. In December 1944, the Church allowed a bishop named Alois Hudal to visit Nazi prisoners held in Allied internment camps, presumably for religious purposes. However, Bishop Hudal instead used his position to help a number of Nazi war criminals flee to safety.
Hudal helped to set up escape routes known as “ratlines,” allowing wanted Nazis to flee to relative safety in South America. He used his position in the Church hierarchy to obtain travel documents from the Vatican Refugee Organization. A number of senior Nazis were actually given Vatican state passports, which allowed them to disguise themselves as priests.
One of the Nazis who Bishop Hudal helped escape was Franz Stangl, who would remain at large until 1967, when he was arrested in Brazil. Stangl was then extradited to West Germany and convicted of overseeing the mass murder of 900,000 Jews.
Meanwhile, a group of Croatian priests operating out of a Catholic seminary college in Rome would set up an escape route now known as the San Girolamo ratline. Led by Father Krunoslav Draganovic, the organization was initially founded to help members of the Utashe escape Europe, but its operations soon expanded to include German Nazis like Klaus Barbie.
At least 9,000 Nazis escaped to South America after the war. The extent to which the Church as an institution helped them to do so remains controversial. The historical consensus is that Hudal and Draganovic acted without the Vatican’s knowledge or approval, but historians have also argued that the Church could have done more to ensure its refugee program wasn’t exploited by fleeing war criminals