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Friday, January 30, 2009

Bishop apologises for causing Holocaust row

A British bishop who caused worldwide outrage by questioning the Holocaust has apologised to the Pope for causing "unnecessary distress" to the Catholic Church.

By Nick Squires In Rome
Last Updated: 12:52AM GMT 31 Jan 2009

Bishop Richard Williamson, who last week said the Nazis did not use gas chambers and killed only 300,000 Jews rather than the accepted six million, admitted his remarks had caused "a tremendous media storm".

The Cambridge-educated bishop, who runs a church in Argentina, described his comments, which were aired on Swedish television last week, as "imprudent".

But he did not withdraw them or offer any explanation for his beliefs, which were condemned this week by Jewish groups, Israeli leaders and politicians across Europe and prompted Israel's chief rabbinate, the country's highest Jewish body, to cut its ties with the Vatican.

Bishop Williamson's comments came just days before he was officially rehabilitated by Pope Benedict XVI, who lifted the excommunication that had been imposed on him and three other bishops 20 years ago.

All four are members of an ultraconservative breakaway faction of the Catholic Church, the Society of St Pius X, which opposes the liberal reforms introduced in the early 1960s under the Second Vatican Council.

In a letter to the head of the Vatican's Pontifical Commission, Bishop Williamson wrote: "I beg of you to accept, only as is properly respectful, my sincere regrets for having caused to yourself and to the Holy Father so much unnecessary distress and problems."

In the one-page letter, which the bishop posted on his personal blog, he added: "Most humbly I will offer a Mass for both of you."

He thanked the 81-year-old Pontiff for lifting the excommunication, which was imposed in 1988 after Williamson was made a bishop by a renegade French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, in a move which the Vatican regarded as a dangerous act of schism.

The Holy See insisted that its decision to rehabilitate the British bishop does not imply that it sanctions his views. Pope Benedict is keen to bring the hardliners of the Society of St Pius X back into the fold of the Catholic Church.

During his weekly public sermon on Wednesday the Pope condemned any denial of the Holocaust and yesterday the Vatican reiterated the message.

Holocaust denial was "all the more serious if it comes from the mouth of a priest or bishop, whether he is united to the Catholic Church or not," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

Analysts said the German-born Pontiff failed to anticipate the furore because he is too isolated.

"This is a solitary papacy and Benedict is paying the price," said Professor Alberto Melloni, head of the John XXIII Centre for Religious Studies in Bologna.

The Pope should have consulted advisers inside the Vatican before lifting the excommunications.

"If he had called any five bishops at random around the world for advice I think they would all have said 'no'. this mess was so predictable it's amazing," said Prof Melloni.

"The Vatican still has not learned how to deal with controversial issues. If you have something you know is going to be explosive, you defuse the bomb before it goes off," said John Allen, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

The saga has infuriated many Jews and left them with the impression that the Vatican does not take Holocaust denial seriously enough.

Concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel said this week that Pope Benedict had given credence to "the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism" by rehabilitating Bishop Williamson.