Obituary: Fr Robert Graham SJ

In 1963 the Catholic Church was rocked by allegations that Pope Pius XII had done nothing to save the Jews during the Second World War. Rolf Hochhuth's controversial play The Deputy caused such a storm that the Vatican had to bow to pressure to give its version of how much the Pope knew about the Nazi extermination of the Jews, when he learnt what he knew, what he could or could not have done to protest and whether protesting would have achieved anything. It was the American Jesuit priest Father Robert Graham who did most to counter such allegations.

The Vatican believed that publication of its secret wartime papers would lay these charges to rest. Graham had already researched in this area and he was assigned by the Jesuits in 1966 to the team publishing the documents from the Vatican archives covering the wartime period. The series began publication in 1965 and Graham joined the three other Jesuits from the third volume. The series would eventually reach 11 volumes.

Against accusations that the Vatican had been less than forthcoming about its wartime role, despite the extensive archive series, Graham insisted that he and the team had been given full, unhindered access to all the Vatican papers for the period. He said they had published texts they considered important and illustrative. Only repetitious material had been omitted. He maintained that the published documents represented an accurate reflection of the total collection. With Vatican permission, Graham supplied historians with other, unpublished documents on request.

As a serious and cautious scholar, he was scathing about the vituperative and often unscholarly hatchet-jobs on his beloved Pius XII who, he insisted, had done his best in agonising circumstances. Had he spoken out against the extermination of the Jews, Graham believed, it would have done little to change Nazi behaviour. As Graham declared last year, the Pope had not even spoken out against the arrest and detention of 2,000 Catholic priests in Dachau. Pius XII "did not give speeches. For the Pope to make speeches would not have helped. It would have compromised the position of Jews and Catholics."

Privately the Pope had encouraged efforts by local Catholics - as in Poland and Hungary - to protect as many Jews as possible. Graham noted that he had scoured the pages of the New York Times during the war and had found little information on or condemnation of the extermination of the Jews until the end of the war, nor had he found any when he went back over the daily newspaper column written by President Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor.

Graham criticised what he called the "irresponsible muddying of the well- springs of history" by some writers, based on what he saw as their faulty understanding of the true nature of the archive material they were publishing, shorn of context and perspective. He stressed that archive material was not necessarily accurate and often merely reflected the perceptions of the writers concerned. He placed some of the archive documents containing the most egregious disinformation in a box he labelled "hoaxes, howlers and humbug".

Graham was born in Sacramento in 1912 and joined the California province of the Jesuits as a young man. He was ordained priest in 1941 and soon after was sent to New York as an editorial writer on the Jesuit weekly America, where he was to remain for over 20 years. In the late 1940s he wrote about the United Nations. In 1952 he gained a doctorate in political science and international law from the University of Geneva during a sabbatical.

In 1959, Graham's book Vatican Diplomacy: a study of Church and State on the international plane was published, and his work on the Second World War period stimulated his interest in further research into the Vatican's diplomatic activity and especially its response to Nazism. He spent a year on a Rockefeller Foundation grant travelling the world interviewing witnesses. At the time the Vatican was still tight-lipped and he had to content himself largely with interviewing foreign diplomats who had been assigned to the Holy See.

Arriving in Rome in 1966, Graham was to make the city his base for the next 30 years until illness caused him to return to California last year. When the original project was completed in 1981, he developed his researches in the Vatican archives and in other European archives. Many of his findings were published in the respected Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica.

In 1992, at a time of growing expectation of Vatican-Israeli diplomatic relations, he prepared a background paper for the Holy See for a major Catholic-Jewish meeting, expounding the Vatican's view of Pope Pius's wartime conduct with regard to the Jews. He repeated his argument that public condemnations would only have provoked the Nazi regime to even more atrocities.

Graham was dismissive of the controversy surrounding the republication in 1995 of a draft text of an encyclical condemning racism and anti-Semitism, which he had known about since 1963. The draft was prepared for Pius XII's predecessor, who had already condemned Nazism in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. On his death in 1939, as is the custom, his papers were abandoned and the encyclical was never sent.

Graham was adamant that the encyclical was not suppressed. The international situation had changed by the time Pius XII was elected and such an explicit condemnation would have caused reprisals in Nazi Germany. Graham also believed that Pius XII was not as impulsive as his predecessor and that such a condemnation was not his style. "The more impulsive Pius XI would have come out with a strong anti-Hitler statement. But, in my opinion, he would have regretted it. Hitler would have gone on a rampage of revenge - not only against Jews but against German bishops as well."

Tall and thin, Graham was well known among Rome-based journalists and historians. Dubbed the "007 of the Vatican", his courteous and mild manner concealed an iron resolve. If there was one overriding mission in Graham's life it was to seek out and publish the truth and, in the process, to exonerate Pope Pius XII.

"While his detractors can no longer injure him," he wrote, "their slanders and insinuations continue to plague the Church, for when a Pope is defamed, the Church suffers."

Felix Corley

Robert Andrew Graham, priest and historian: born Sacramento, California 11 March 1912; ordained priest 1941; died Los Gatos, California 11 February 1997.

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