Pope shakes up office blamed for Holocaust denier

VATICAN CITY Wed Jul 8, 2009 9:44am EDT

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican July 8, 2009. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican July 8, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Giampiero Sposito

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict Wednesday effectively removed the Vatican official who was widely blamed for a controversy involving a bishop who denied the Holocaust.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos was president of the Vatican department set up 20 years ago to seek a rapprochement with a hard-core traditionalist splinter group at the center of the Holocaust-denial scandal that erupted in January.

The pope has now put that department, known as Ecclesia Dei, under the control of the Vatican's doctrinal department and has named American Cardinal Joseph Levada as its new president.

Ecclesia Dei, which means "Church of God," was widely blamed for the international uproar that followed when the pope lifted the excommunication of four bishops from the traditionalist Society of St Pius X (SSPX).

By lifting the excommunications, the pope was trying to heal a 20-year-old rift that began when they were disciplined for being ordained without the permission of Pope John Paul II.

One of the bishops, Richard Williamson, said in an interview he believed there were no gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by historians.

The British bishop had made similar comments before -- much of it available on the Internet -- and Castrillon Hoyos came in for criticism for not having vetted him properly, foreseen the reaction that followed or informed the pope.

The Vatican said at the time that the pope did not know of Williamson's background and Benedict himself then acknowledged, in a letter to bishops, that the Church had to learn to use the Internet properly.

Castrillon Hoyos' substitution came in a papal document called a Motu Proprio in which the pope put Ecclesia Dei under the strict control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department the pope headed before his 2005 election.

The pope, who first announced his intention to shake up Ecclesia Dei in March, also removed its deputy president.

Williamson's comments and the pope's decision to lift the excommunication caused a deep rift in Catholic-Jewish relations. It was condemned by Holocaust survivors, some Catholics, Israel's Chief Rabbinate, world Jewish leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In the document released Wednesday, the pope said the aim of the new organizational structure was to sort out doctrinal questions with the SSPX, whose members still do not accept the reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.

The pope said the SSPX still had no canonical statute within the Church, meaning its priests "cannot legitimately exercise any ministry."

The Vatican says that before the SSPX can be fully readmitted into the Church it must accept the teachings of Second Vatican Council, which urged respect for other religions.

Some Jews have accused the SSPX of being anti-Semitic. The SSPX says it has the duty to convert Jews to Catholicism.

(Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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