A new set of historical studies published by the Roman Catholic Church has found that one of the main skeletons in its cupboard -- the centuries-long campaign against heretics called the Inquisition -- may have involved somewhat less torture and killing than was commonly believed.
One of the studies blames civil authorities rather than the church for a wave of witch-burning in Europe and the Americas that saw tens of thousands of women burned at the stake.
Nevertheless, the nearly 800-page study includes a letter from Pope John Paul in which he again apologized -- as he did for the first time in 2000 -- for the church's role in the Inquisition, which tortured and ordered the jailing and execution of uncounted numbers of people on the mere suspicion of heresy.
Christians on occasion "indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal," the pope said, adding that the inquisition was one example of such scandal.
The study consists largely of the minutes of a groundbreaking symposium in 1998 that prepared the ground for the pope's historical apology four years ago.
The fact that it took the Vatican six years to publish the volume was not because it was afraid to face the past, but because of the illness of several people who took part in the symposium, according to Cardinal George Cottier.
Cottier, the pope's in-house theologian, is a member of the Dominican order that was largely responsible for carrying out the Inquisition.
The pope said the Vatican had sponsored the study because "before asking for forgiveness, it is necessary to know exactly what are the facts." Cottier added at a news conference that an apology had to be grounded on facts rather than "myths" that are "widely held by public opinion."
The first formal inquisition was set up in 1184 in response to the Catharist heresy in southern France. In 1231, Pope Gregory IX decreed life imprisonment for repentant heretics and death for those who did not repent.
Gregory left it up to civil authorities to carry out the sentences, enabling the church in later years to decline its responsibility for mass executions known as autos-da-fe carried out by the Inquisition in Spain and Latin America. The last mass burning was carried out as late as 1850 in Mexico, after the Spanish Inquisition had been abolished.
Burning at the stake as punishment for heresy was established by the Synod of Verona in 1184 and several times reaffirmed by the Roman Catholic Church.
But burning was by no means a Catholic monopoly. Witch-burning was prevalant in parts of northern Europe not under the control of the Roman church.
Calvinist Scotland had one of the most dismal records of witch-burning, and in Geneva, the Protestant leader Jean Calvin had no hesitation in sending his opponents to the stake, including the pioneering Spanish physician and scholar Michael Servetus, who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.
Historian Antonio Borromeo, the editor of the Vatican study, said one study showed that civil tribunals sent tens thousands of women to the stake as witches, compared to fewer than 100 by the Inquisition.
At the end of the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella set up an independent Inquisition in Spain as an early form of ethnic cleansing to root out remnants of Islam and Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition -- made famous by Franciso Goya's dark sketches and paintings -- has remained a byword for oppression and torture.
Elsewhere the church tried to bring local inquisitions under central control by placing them under a supervisory body later known as the Holy Office. This became the current Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which still has the task of repressing heresy.
Presenting the volume at the Vatican, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 81, a close confidant of the pope, said that acknowledging the past was all the more relevant given the continued use of torture in the 21st century, most notably by US troops on prisoners in Iraq.
"The lessons that come to us from history never come to an end," he said. The Inquisition was "a sad chapter which Christians must look into with an open spirit of repentance."
Etchegaray said it was hoped that the book, "Minutes of the International Symposium 'The Inquisition,'" would become a reference point for future historians. More than 30 experts, non-Catholics as well as Catholics, took part in the symposium.