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Vatican orders retraction from Holocaust denier

The Vatican says British Bishop Richard Williamson must publicly recant and that Pope Benedict XVI was unaware of the bishop's views when he lifted his excommunication.

February 05, 2009|Sebastian Rotella and Maria de Cristofaro

MADRID AND VATICAN CITY — Reacting to two weeks of outrage, the Vatican demanded Wednesday that a bishop retract his public statements denying that the Nazis killed millions of Jews in the Holocaust.

In addition, the Vatican asserted for the first time that Pope Benedict XVI had been unaware of Bishop Richard Williamson's explosive views when the pontiff lifted the excommunication of the British clergyman and three other bishops who belong to an ultraconservative religious order estranged from the Roman Catholic Church.

Williamson had said in an interview aired by Swedish television that he thought 200,000 or 300,000 Jews died in Nazi concentration camps and that none died in gas chambers.

"Bishop Williamson . . . must distance himself in absolutely unequivocal and public fashion from his positions regarding the Shoah, which were not known by the Holy Father when the excommunication was lifted," said the statement by the Vatican, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

Jewish leaders praised the Vatican's strong words.

"This was the sign the Jewish world has been waiting for," said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, according to news reports.

Nonetheless, the statement that the pope had not known about Williamson's opinions reinforced questions about leadership and communication in the Vatican. Even within the church, experts suggested that Benedict's inner circle needs to keep him better informed and adopt a more modern, aggressive approach to handling sensitive issues.

"This latest controversy and others that preceded it . . . point to a fatal systemic flaw in the Benedict papacy that is destroying his effectiveness as pope: He does not consult experts who might challenge his views and inclinations," Father Thomas J. Reese, an expert at Georgetown University, wrote in a piece released Wednesday.

Reese also described the handling of the initial announcement about the bishop "as a disaster" and said the pope has "little PR sense."

The lifting of the bishops' excommunications, the harshest punishment in the church, was merely a first step in an attempt at reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X. The order rejects the reforms adopted by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, including outreach to the Jewish faith.

The Vatican's delay in issuing a forceful repudiation of Williamson's views caused German Chancellor Angela Merkel to take the unusual step Tuesday of calling for clear language from the church hierarchy.

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rotella@latimes.com

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