Wire Service: RTw (Reuters World Report)

Date: Thu, Mar 24, 1994

By John Follain

PARIS, March 24 (Reuter) - The trial of Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier, the first Frenchman to appear in court for crimes against humanity, on Friday will put the spotlight on the Roman Catholic Church for hiding him over a period of 45 years.

Monks and nuns, priests and bishops -- even a Vatican cardinal -- stretched the concept of Christian charity to shelter the former Lyon militia chief, who will be 79 early next month. Touvier is accused of ordering the execution of seven Jews in June 1944.

When police finally caught up with him early one morning in May 1989, Touvier was living in a small, fundamentalist priory in the French Riviera city of Nice.

"Crying is forbidden," Touvier, brought up in a strict Catholic family and devout to the end, told his wife and children before confessing himself to an abbot.

According to historian Francois Bedarida, author of a report commissioned by the [Roman] Catholic Church on Touvier's links with men of the cloth, the fugitive who was twice sentenced to death in his absence could boast extraordinary support.

"We discovered ........ wide-ranging and ramified networks, a whole ecclesiastical world -- none of us had any inkling of the organisation, the stubborness and the desperate eagerness to protect the former militiaman," he said.

Bedarida, who will testify on Friday, said his report published in January 1992 at the request of Lyon archbishop Albert Decourtray, was "damning for the image of the [Roman Catholic] Church."

By portraying himself as a victim or by exaggerating his desire to repent, Touvier found sanctuary with churchmen, many of whom were anti-Semitic, the report said. But it stressed the Church as an institution had never authorised such refuge.

"For 45 years Touvier lived on the back of the [Roman Catholic] Church's extreme right wing," said Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld. "He came from a militia which was anti-Communist and which portrayed itself as Christian," he said.

"The 1992 report prevented public opinion from putting the Church on trial. Things would have been different if the archives had stayed secret," Klarsfeld said.

Various associations helped Touvier in the immediate aftermath of the war. When he was wanted by police, a network of priests, convents and religious institutions hid him away.

Touvier told the court in Versailles near Paris on Wednesday how he hid in a hole in the floor and then sought asylum in churches during his years as a fugitive.

He described a "Tour de France" of churches at whose doors he knocked to seek asylum and where he was nearly always given refuge, even after saying why he was on the run.

"One priest asked me when I showed up at his door at dawn: "Is it for Mass?' I replied: "It's more complicated than that'."

Monseigneur Charles Duquaire, private secretary to the Lyon archbishop, moved heaven and earth for the former militiaman.

When the two death sentences imposed in Touvier's absence in 1947 lapsed after 20 years, Duquaire lobbied French President Georges Pompidou also to lift measures banning him from his hometown and confiscating his assets.

Even the Vatican intervened. Its secretary of state Jean Villot, number two at the Holy See and a former Lyon archbishop, wrote to Pompidou in December 1970, urging that Touvier be pardoned. Pompidou granted the pardon the following year.

Archbishop Decourtray commented after the 1992 report was published: "How is it possible that so many churchmen......in the name of a certain idea of charity, could have so misunderstood the requirements of truth and justice?