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John Paul II, Pius XII closer to sainthood

Pope Benedict XVI moved two of his predecessors closer to sainthood Saturday, signing decrees on the virtues of the beloved Pope John Paul II and controversial Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust.

The decrees mean that both men can be beatified once the Vatican certifies that a miracle attributed to their intercession has occurred. Beatification is the first major step before sainthood.

Some Jews and historians have argued that Pius should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. As a result, the German-born Benedict's surprise decision to recognize Pius' "heroic virtues" sparked immediate outcry from Jewish groups.

The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee said the move was premature because the Vatican still hasn't opened up to outside historians its secret archives from Pius' 1939-1958 pontificate. The Vatican says the 16 million files won't be ready until 2014 at the earliest.

"While it is obviously up to the Vatican to determine who its saints are, the church's repeated insistence that it seeks mutually respectful ties with the Jewish community ought to mean taking our sensitivities into account on this most crucial historical era," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews. Pius, a Vatican diplomat in Germany before being elected pope, did denounce in general terms the extermination of people based on race and opened Vatican City up to war refugees, including Jews, after Hitler occupied Rome in 1943.

But he didn't issue scathing public indictments of Jewish deportations, and some historians say he cared more about bilateral relations with Nazi Germany regarding the rights of the Catholic church there, than saving Jewish lives.

Benedict put John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood just weeks after his April 2, 2005, death, heeding the calls of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately!" that erupted in St. Peter's Square during the funeral of the much-loved pontiff.

Benedict waived the customary five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into John Paul's life and virtues to begin immediately.