Vatican studies Church's dark past

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A SELECT group of historians and Catholic priests yesterday began examining to what extent water torture, thumb screws and burnings at the stake could be justified in defence of the Christian faith.

The answer may seem obvious to outsiders, but for the Catholic Church, whose continuity down the centuries depends on not being wrong, admitting past mistakes is never simple.

The three-day Vatican conference on the Inquisition brings together 50 experts who will assess whether the special courts that sent alleged witches and free-thinkers to their maker, acted in conformity to the Gospels. Their findings will then be presented to the Pope and may be the prelude to a new millennial mea culpa for the past sins of the church.

The word Inquisition, which has become a byword for cruelty and terror, conjures up images of cowled monks, dungeons and ruthless Jesuit interrogators. It has its roots in the 13th century when special ecclesiastical courts were set up to try heretics. Thousands of people were sent to their deaths at the peak of its brutality in the 16th century and early 17th century, when Protestantism and the emergence of humanistic values of the Renaissance, were seen as a threat to the very foundations of the Catholic church.

The conference on the Inquisition follows the opening up of more than 4,000 Vatican archives in January. While much is known from civic records held in the countries where the various church courts operated, the view from Rome has until now been secret.

The organiser of the conference, the Swiss theologian Fr Georges Cottier, insists that the aim of the meeting is not to issue a general condemnation of the Inquisition. "What was done by some people in some periods of the church's history," he admitted in an interview with Vatican radio, "casts a shadow on the face of the church". He said the emphasis would be both historical and theological and Inquisition would be placed firmly within its historical context.

Historians from Spain, France, Portugal and Chile will contribute research on the impact of the Inquisition in their countries. One of the participants, Professor John Tedeschi, of the University of Wisconsin in the United States, said the number of people killed for their beliefs was far less than was popularly believed.

"This black legend is an incorrect fabrication of the ... Reformation period," he said. "The Inquisition punished dissenters; we can't escape the fact that people were sent to the stake, but not in the large numbers that are bandied around," he said.

The conference will not dwell on individual cases. One of the most famous Inquisition targets, Gallileo Gallilei, has already been officially rehabilitated by the church.

Anyone hoping that Joan of Arc, or Florence's book-burning monk Girolamo Savonarola may receive individual apologies are likely to be disappointed. The request for a pardon, if indeed there is one, will be collective. It may form part of an act of penitence Catholics will make around the world, planned for Ash Wednesday in 2000. Any such a decision lies with the Pope, who will meet the scholars tomorrow.

The examination of the Inquisition is the result of the Pope's wish for a purification of the church as it enters the next millennium.