VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Attacks on the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict over a sexual abuse scandal are comparable to “collective violence” against Jews, the pontiff’s personal preacher told a Vatican Good Friday service.
The sermon by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan whose title is “Preacher of the Pontifical Household”, drew sharp criticism from both Jews and victims of sexual abuse by priests.
It further racheted up tensions over the abuse scandal, forcing even the Vatican spokesman to distance himself from Cantalamessa, the only person authorized to preach to the pope.
Cantalamessa, speaking with the pope sitting nearby, drew the parallel at an afternoon Good Friday service in St Peter’s Basilica on the day Christians commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion.
Noting that this year the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter fell during the same week, he said Jews throughout history had been the victims of “collective violence” and drew comparisons between Jewish suffering and attacks on the Church.
As the pope listened, Cantalamessa read the congregation a part of a letter he received from a Jewish friend, who said he was “following with disgust the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the pope...”
“The use of stereotypes, the shifting of personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism,” he quoted from the letter.
“Shame on Father Cantalamessa,” said Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
“The Vatican is entitled to defend itself but the comparison with anti-Semitic persecution is offensive and unsustainable. We are sorely disappointed,” he told Reuters.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said: “This should not be interpreted as an official position of the Vatican.” But some Jewish groups demanded a personal apology from the pope for the words read by his preacher.
“These hurtful remarks were made in the presence of the pope and the pope himself should take responsibility and apologize for them,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier of Simon Wiesenthal Center, the international Jewish human rights group.
The pope, both at the service where Cantalamessa preached as well as at a “Way of the Cross” service for thousands of people later at the Colosseum, made no reference to the abuse scandal.
This week’s celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday have been clouded by accusations that the Church in several countries mishandled and covered up episodes of sexual abuse of children by priests, some dating back decades.
Shaken by the crisis, the Vatican has accused the media of an “ignoble” attempt to smear the pope at all costs. Some news reports have accused him of negligence in handling sexual abuse cases in previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany and in Rome.
Victims of sexual abuse also criticized Cantalamessa.
“It’s heart-breaking to see yet another smart, high-ranking Vatican official making such callous remarks that insult both abuse victims and Jewish people,” said a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
As revelations of sexual abuse and alleged cover-ups have surfaced almost daily in Europe over the past weeks, the Vatican has said the guilt of individuals who committed crimes, however heinous, cannot be shifted to the pope or the entire Church.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from 1950 to 1974. The New York Times reported the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, were warned about Murphy but he was not defrocked.
The Vatican has also said the pope, when he was Archbishop of Munich, was not aware that a German priest who underwent therapy after he sexually abused children was later allowed to return to the ministry. The priest later abused children again.
The Vatican says that decision was taken by a subordinate, not by the future pope.
Writing by Philip Pullella; editing by Ralph Boulton