Pope indicates church may ask to be pardoned for Inquisition

"Only when historical science has managed to establish the true facts can theologians and ecclesiastical authorities express an objectively based judgment," the pope said.

The pope was addressing several dozen international historians, scholars and other experts on the Inquisition who had met for three days behind closed doors at the Vatican.

The symposium was the church's first official examination of what many regard as the darkest chapter of its history.

It was held as part of the Vatican's preparations for the year 2000. John Paul wants the church to begin its new millennium by owning up to and repenting for past sins.

The Inquisition was set up in the 13th century as a permanent tribunal charged with rooting out and combating heresy. It lasted into the 19th century and became notorious for brutal methods that included the interrogation, imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake of thousands of people, particularly focusing on hidden Jews, former Muslims and Protestants.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray told the meeting's first session that their purpose is to expound on "the results of their research, with the aim of allowing us to reach a greater knowledge and a better comprehension" of the brutal persecutions.

"The church is not afraid to submit its past to the judgment of history," said Etchegaray, who heads the Vatican's Commission for the Grand Jubilee, which oversees events planned for the millennium.

Some scholars will present the results of their investigations on the Inquisition made since Vatican archives were officially opened for research on the topic in January.

"The church cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without pressing its children to purify themselves in repentance for their errors, infidelity, incoherence and slowness," Etchegaray said.