Was the controversial Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac a target of decades-long communist smears and disinformation? One researcher of the period says the facts can counter false claims about the beatified cardinal's wartime record.

"Stepinac was and remains an enormous hero in Croatia today," Prof. Ronald J. Rychlak told CNA.

"Just about every church you go into there's a picture or a statue or a painting of Stepinac. He's truly a national hero over there. And he did stand against the Ustashe. He stood against the communists as well. They imprisoned him."

Cardinal Stepinac was the Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960 at the age of 61.

In Yugoslavia during the Second World War, the pro-Nazi Ustashe movement came to power under leader Ante Pavelic after the Axis occupied the country.

"They were very vicious. They were considered worse than the Nazis in their persecution of Jews, of Serbs, of anyone who got in their way," said Rychlak, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Pope St. John Paul II beatified Cardinal Stepinac as a martyr in October 1998. His cause for canonization is still pending, but Pope Francis has arranged a special commission of Catholic and Orthodox leaders to explore his wartime record.

Many in the Serbian Orthodox community are deeply skeptical of the cardinal's wartime record. For Rychlak, however, the historical record is on the cardinal's side.

Pavelic, the Ustashe head, called himself a Catholic. The Ustashe claimed a Catholic background, and  forcibly converted many people to Catholicism. The future cardinal initially cooperated with the government, but was not silent in the face of its crimes.

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"Stepinac's sermons against the Ustashe were so strong. They prohibited them from being published, because they were so strong against the Ustashe," Rychlak said.

His words were secretly printed and circulated and occasionally broadcast over the radio.

"There's a great story about a Nazi officer who came to Zagreb and he heard Stepinac preach," Rychlak recounted. The archbishop condemned the Ustashe's actions so strongly, the general said "If a churchman in Germany spoke like that, he would not step down from the pulpit alive."

He severely condemned the Ustashe's destruction of Zagreb's main synagogue in 1941.

"A House of God, of whatever religion, is a holy place," he said. "An attack on a House of God of any religion constitutes an attack on all religious communities."

In October 1943 homily, the archbishop condemned notions of racial superiority.

"The Catholic Church knows nothing of races born to rule and born to slavery," he said. "The Catholic Church knows races and nations only as creatures of God."

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The Ustashe lost control to Marshal Tito's communists partisans, who had used Stepinac's anti-Ustashe comments in their propaganda. Yugoslavia's communists then turned on Archbishop Stepinac.

In 1946, Stepinac was put on trial for allegedly collaborating with the Ustashe's crimes. The trial drew critical coverage from Western media like Time and Newsweek and protests from those who saw it as a show trial.

Among the trial's critics was the American Jewish community leader Louis Breier, who organized protests in New York City in support of the archbishop.

Archbishop Stepinac was denied effective representation and only met with his attorney for an hour before the trial. The government's witnesses were told what to say, and the archbishop was not allowed to cross-examine them.

What you have is a false narrative created by Soviet agents.

He was sentenced to hard labor, but after a global outcry his sentence was reduced to house arrest.

"Nevertheless, it becomes the public record that he was convicted of collaboration," Rychlak said.

Rychlak sees the trial and its aftermath as part of the same propaganda campaign that would target Pope Pius XII, Hungary's Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty and other Eastern Bloc churchmen with claims of Nazi collaboration.

"What you have is a false narrative created by Soviet agents," Rychlak said. "The directive would have come from the Kremlin."

A communist-made movie circulated throughout Yugoslavia used footage of the archbishop's trial in a misleading way.

At the trial, Archbishop Stepinac began his 18-minute criticism of the trial's legitimacy with the phrase "I will not defend myself against these charges." The movie only showed this first phrase, and not the archbishop's lengthy criticism.

In the early 1960s, the Italian writer Carlo Falconi sought the records of the Stepinac trial from the Yugoslavian government. Rychlak said the government's records show a "frantic rush" to respond.

"If they turn over the files as they existed, it would be clear that it's a sham. They fabricate some documents, cherry-pick some documents, and send him some files," the professor said.

Falconi's book and its strong criticism of Stepinac then became a foundational text in criticisms of Pius XII's wartime record.

After the fall of communism, one of the first acts of the new parliament was to apologize for the archbishop's show trial. The archbishop's prosecutor acknowledged the prosecution was motivated by the archbishop's bad relationship with the communists, not because of his relationship with the Nazis. Others involved in the fabrication of documents came forward and denied that Cardinal Stepinac's trial was legitimate.

"Disinformation is a false narrative that appears to come from a reliable source," Rychlak said. "Once it's out there, it takes on a life of its own."

Rychlak authored the book "Hitler, the War, and the Pope," a history of Pius XII in World War II. He co-authored the 2013 book "Disinformation" with Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former leader in the Romanian secret police and intelligence services who defected to the U.S. in 1978.

Pacepa has charged that many of the false claims about Cardinal Stepinac are due to the work of the Yugoslavian state security service UDBA and Soviet intelligence agents.

Three years after the cardinal's trial, trial, Vyshinksy became foreign minister of the Soviet Union.

After five years in a Yugoslav jail, Archbishop Stepinac was given the option of seeking refuge in Rome or confinement under house arrest in his home parish. He chose the latter. 

In 1953, Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal, although he was never allowed travel to the Holy See to be officially elevated. He died in 1960 of an alleged blood disorder, which was said to have been caused by the conditions he endured in jail. Recent tests of his remains by Vatican investigators show evidence he was also poisoned.

In June 2011 Pope Benedict XVI praised Cardinal Stepinac as a courageous defender of those oppressed by the Ustase, including Serbs, Jews and gypsies.

He said the cardinal stood against "the dictatorship of communism, where he again fought for the faith, for the presence of God in the world, the true humanity that is dependent on the presence of God."