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; A01

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.

During an evening liturgy, Cantalamessa said he had received a letter from a Jewish friend who was upset by the attacks against Benedict and the Church and expressed his "solidarity" and "sentiments of brotherhood."

Quoting from the letter with the author's permission, the priest said his friend had been following " 'with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the pope and all the faithful of the whole world.' "

" 'The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism,' " Cantalamessa said his friend wrote.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of Simon Wiesenthal Center, in Los Angeles, called the comparison "bizarre."

"The fact that he's quoting [a] letter from a Jewish person doesn't excuse the ignorance," he said. "These priests were perpetrators. They abused their calling, betrayed their faith. And then were protected by the hierarchy. To say that is like the persecution of the Jews is a distortion of history and shameful."

"It's Good Friday," he added. The priest "knows his remarks are going all over the world. And that's the message you want to give? Ridiculous. Not only should the priest retract it, but the pope should address it . . . to say nothing condones it."

The Rev. James Massa, chief officer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on interreligious matters, said he worried how the comparison will affect the Church's relationship with the Jewish community. He noted the great progress made in recent decades in understanding between leaders of the two faiths.

"I hope that what was said will be understood as the comments of one particular priest, albeit a prominent one, and doesn't reflect opinions of the pope or the Catholic Church," Massa said. "I think the comparison is not only unfortunate, but inappropriate [and] . . . has no place in a Good Friday sermon."

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said the priest was speaking for himself.

"There is no position of the Vatican to do a parallel between the critiques of the Church and the anti-Semitism," he said in a phone interview. "I stress that the intention of the priest was to give witness of solidarity of the Jewish friend who referred to his experience and suffering of his people. . . . The Vatican is not comparing critics with anti-Semitism."

But others in the Catholic community said they have been struck by the Church's response to recent abuse allegations.

"If they hired someone to draw up the worst possible PR plan for the Church, they could not do any worse than these guys are doing right now," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

"It's disastrous," he said. "They really need to get someone from the U.S. bishops conference who has been through this before to get over there and help guide the coverage. I mean, to invoke the persecution of the Jews? They are making every mistake in the book."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company