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Church repents over wartime silence

The French Catholic Church yesterday apologised, to God and to the Jewish people, for its failure to speak out against the persecution of Jews by the Vichy regime in 1940-44. But why so late and why now?

Standing in a gloomy council estate in the northern Paris suburbs from which 76,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, and their deaths, a French bishop yesterday read a moving statement of apology and contrition.

"Faced with the scale of this event and the unprecedented nature of this crime, the silence of so many pastors of the Church was an offence against the Church itself and the mission of the Church. Today, we confess that this silence was an error ... We implore God's forgiveness and ask the Jewish people to hear these words of repentance."

Monsignor Olivier de Berranger, Bishop of Saint Denis, was chosen to read the words because it was in Drancy, in his diocese, that the French authorities created the main transit camp for the deportation of Jews to Poland in 1942-44. The statement was agreed by the entire Catholic hierarchy in France, ending a silence which has lasted for 55 years.

The declaration recognised the actions of a handful of courageous French bishops and priests who spoke out and helped Jews to escape. But it also admitted that the overwhelming number of senior French church men supported the high-Catholic Vichy regime and hid themselves in "indifference" and "conformism". The statement went on to place part of the blame for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism on the "teaching of contempt" by the Church itself.

But why apologise now? Why so long after the war? Why two years after similar admissions of responsibility by the Polish and German Catholic churches and by President Jacques Chirac, on behalf of the French state?

Partly, the lead has been given by the Vatican. The Pope has asked the Catholic Church as a whole to wipe the slate clean before the millennium - and the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth - by facing up to grave errors in its own past. There were, however, pressing French reasons for the French church to speak out now. A week today there will begin in Bordeaux the trial of Maurice Papon, a senior official of the Vichy regime in the Bordeaux area who organised and supervised the arrest and deportation of 1,560 Jews. Mr Papon, 87, is charged with crimes against humanity, the first senior Vichy official to face such charges in court.

The trial, which could last three months, will cause profound soul-searching in France, not just about what happened under Vichy, but about the failure of France over many decades to face up to what happened. Mr Papon was not an enormously important official under Vichy but, despite his energetic role in the round-up of Jews, he thrived in the French establishment after the war. He was prefect of police in Paris in the late 1950s, head of a semi-state company and, finally, a cabinet minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing before he was denounced by the son of one of his victims in 1981.

His career was possible, and the long silence of the French Catholic church was possible, because Vichy became a closed book after the initial post-war witch-hunting of thousands of very senior and very lowly officials. The amnesia was especially complete, until at least the 1970s, on the role of French officials in organising the round-up of Jews, the role of French police in carrying it out, and the role of the French church in giving the persecution implicit spiritual support.

The Papon trial will be an exorcism of the French political and legal community's bad conscience about the period 1944-81, as much as the period 1940-44. The French Catholic Church, after waiting so long, decided, in effect, that it ought to get its repentance in first.

Jewish and Catholic leaders also pointed to the significance of the declaration for present-day politics in France. Anti-Semitism in high- Catholic, haut-bourgeois circles did not end with Vichy. Two of the most active strands in the growing support for the far-right, anti-Semitic National Front are Catholic traditionalists and Vichy sentimentalists. The strength of the words in yesterday's statement about the age-old role of the Church in promoting anti-Semitism will be especially welcomed by anti-Front campaigners.

The contemporary importance of the statement could be seen, as if in a distorting mirror, by the reaction of the NF leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He said the apology was "absolutely scandalous".