Holocaust Denier Is Ordered to Recant -- Otherwise, Vatican Says, Cleric Can't Come Back
Thursday, February 5, 2009
BERLIN, Feb. 4 -- The Vatican on Wednesday ordered a British bishop to publicly recant his denials of the Holocaust, responding to an outcry over last month's decision by Pope Benedict XVI to welcome the excommunicated cleric back into the church.
In an unsigned statement, the Vatican said the formerly defrocked bishop, Richard Williamson, would be barred from resuming life as a priest until he admitted "in an absolutely unequivocal and public way" that he was wrong in saying the Nazis did not kill any Jews in gas chambers during World War II.
The Vatican said Benedict was not personally aware of the bishop's repeated public comments denying the Holocaust until after the pontiff decided to overturn a decision to excommunicate Williamson and three other renegade clerics 21 years ago.
The Vatican previously had fended off criticism of Williamson's rehabilitation even as church officials in Rome distanced themselves from his views. On Tuesday, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, declared the matter "closed." Other Vatican officials said Benedict had adequately addressed the controversy the week before by warning against Holocaust revisionism and proclaiming his "full and indisputable solidarity" with Jews.
But the Vatican's handling of the case continued to anger people inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church who said Benedict -- a Bavarian who was conscripted into the Hitler Youth as a teenager -- was underestimating the importance of the issue.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday accused the Vatican of "creating the impression that Holocaust denial might be tolerated" and urged the church to "clarify" its position. Even some German cardinals and bishops called on the Vatican to speak out more strongly against Williamson and apologize to Holocaust survivors.
The Vatican's decision Wednesday to issue the new order was welcomed by leaders of several Jewish groups, although they said Benedict needs to confront other high-ranking clerics who have espoused extremist views about Judaism.
"This was the sign the Jewish world has been waiting for," said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. "Anti-Semites should not be allowed to have a say in the church."
The episode has caused a particular stir in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime. Prosecutors in Bavaria have said they are investigating Williamson's comments. The country celebrated in 2005 when Benedict became the first German pope in five centuries, but many Germans are now cringing.
"We Catholics are trying to be loyal to the Vatican and trying to understand what happened behind the scenes," said Edmund Runggaldier, a professor of religious philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin. "It's horrifying because we all know what happened in Auschwitz, and we know that the pope does, too. That's what makes it so embarrassing."
There was no word Wednesday from the bishop on whether he would agree to the Vatican's demand. Williamson resides in Argentina and could not be located for comment. He had previously apologized for causing the pontiff "unnecessary distress" but did not recant.
Williamson is a member of the Society of St. Pius X, a Catholic sect that rejects the reformist teachings of the Second Vatican Council. He and three other clerics from the sect were excommunicated in 1988 after becoming bishops without papal consent.
The Vatican announced Jan. 24 that Benedict had agreed to lift the excommunication order as part of an effort to mend relations with the Society of St. Pius X.
Two days earlier, Swedish public television station broadcast a prerecorded interview with Williamson in which he insisted that no more than 300,000 Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, "not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber." Most credible historical accounts estimate that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
It was not the first time that Williamson had denied the extent of the Holocaust. In 1989, during a speaking tour in Canada, he said Jews were "the enemies of Christ" and had fabricated the Holocaust as part of a Zionist scheme to found the state of Israel.
"What is particularly astounding is the Vatican assertion that they didn't know about his Holocaust views," said Marvin Hier, a rabbi and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "All somebody had to do was Google him."