VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict on Thursday told Jewish leaders he was "seriously considering" freezing the sainthood process of his Nazi-era predecessor Pius XII until historical archives can be opened, one Jewish leader said.
Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked behind the scenes and helped save many Jews from certain death during World War Two.
Rabbi David Rosen, a leader of a Jewish delegation that met the pope on Thursday, said the subject came up in conversations after formal speeches were delivered.
"One member of our delegation told the pope 'please do not move ahead with beatification of Pius XII before the Vatican archives can be made accessible for objective historical analysis' and the pope said 'I am looking into it, I am considering it seriously'," Rosen told reporters.
Beatification is the last step before sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Some Jews have asked the pope to hold off on beatifying Pius until more information on his papacy can be studied.
Pius did not come up in the formal speeches between the pope and Rosen, but the Jewish leader did repeat a request for the Vatican archives to be open for study.
"We reiterate our respectful call for full and transparent access of scholars to all archival material from the period, so that assessments regarding actions and policies during this tragic period may have the credibility they deserve both within our respective communities and beyond," Rosen told the pope.
A Vatican statement said another six or seven years of preparatory work would be needed before the archives on Pius's period could be opened to scholars and the pope would have the final decision.
At issue is whether Benedict should let Pius proceed on the road to sainthood -- which Catholic supporters want -- by signing a decree recognizing his "heroic virtues." This would clear the way for beatification.
Benedict has so far not signed the decree -- approved last year by the Vatican's saint-making department, opting instead for what the Vatican has called a period of reflection.
"It is not the business of the Jewish people to tell the Church who its saints are. However, if the Church says, as it does, that it wishes to live in mutual respectful relations with the Jewish people, it is appropriate to expect that there will be consideration for our sensitivities," Rosen said.
The Vatican says while Pius did not speak out against the Holocaust, he worked behind the scenes to help Jews because direct intervention would have worsened the situation by prompting retaliations by Hitler.
Benedict has repeatedly defended Pius, saying he worked "secretly and silently" during World War Two to "avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews possible."
The Vatican says he saved several hundred thousand Jewish lives by ordering churches and convents throughout Italy to hide Jews and instructing Vatican diplomats in Europe to give many Jews false passports.
This month, Amos Luzzatto, president emeritus of Italy's Jewish communities, said making Pius XII a saint could open a "wound difficult to heal" between Jews and Catholics.
"I ask myself why Pius didn't do the same thing to call European Catholics to action. These are questions that haunt us Jews," he said.
(Editing by Caroline Drees)