Vatican priest likens criticism of church on abuse to anti-Semitism

By Michael E. Ruane and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010

On the most solemn day in the Roman Catholic calendar, a senior Vatican priest ignited a fresh chapter Friday in the debate over the priest abuse scandal by comparing criticism of the Church and Pope Benedict XVI to the historic persecution and "collective violence" against Jews.

In a Good Friday sermon in St. Peter's Basilica attended by the pope, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa said a Jewish friend had written to him, saying the recent accusations about the Church reminded him of the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism."

Jews know "from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence," the priest said, and "because of this, they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms."

The statement stung Jewish groups -- with one spokesman calling it "repulsive" -- and prompted calls for the priest to retract it and for the pope to address it.

The statement also angered victims groups, which expressed outrage that the Church, some of whose priests preyed on generations of Catholic children, was portraying itself as a victim.

"The pope is not the victim here, nor is the Church hierarchy," said David Clohessy, who is an advocate for victims and who experienced alleged abuses by a priest as a boy. "The victims are the boys and girls being sexually assaulted by priests, nuns, seminarians."

He said, "When they play the victim, when they rally around those who were predators or try to cover up for them, it just intimidates those who were abused from speaking up."

The Vatican quickly said Cantalamessa, a member of the Capuchin Order whose title is preacher of the Pontifical Household, was speaking only for himself.

As Cantalamessa delivered his homily in Vatican City, the weary-looking, white-haired pope, 82, sat near the basilica's main altar. Good Friday is the day on which Catholics mark the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. Easter follows on Sunday.

The homily came amid revelations of alleged abuse of children by priests across Europe and in the United States, and the accusation that Benedict, before he became pope, did not do enough to take action against suspect priests.

And it came amid a new CBS News poll that shows that the pope's favorable rating has fallen 13 points among American Catholics, from 40 percent in 2006 to 27 percent today. More than two in three Americans, including a majority of Catholics, say the pope has done a poor job of handling allegations of abuse by priests.

But other Catholics agree with Church officials that Benedict and the Church have been unfairly smeared.

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