VATICAN CITY — At a solemn Good Friday service, Pope Benedict XVI's personal preacher likened the tide of allegations that the pontiff has covered up sex abuse cases to the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism." But within hours, facing a storm of criticism at the comparison, the Vatican felt it necessary to distance the pope from the preacher's remarks.
Both Jewish and victims' groups responded that it was inappropriate to compare the discomfort being experienced by the church leadership in the sex abuse scandal to the violence that culminated in the Holocaust. The Vatican has been on the defensive in recent days, saying the church has been singled out and collectively stereotyped for the problem of pedophilia, which it says is a society-wide issue.
Invoking any comparison with anti-Semitism was particularly sensitive on Good Friday, itself a delicate day in a decades-long effort by Jews and Catholics to overcome a legacy of mistrust. There was a long-held Catholic belief that Jews were collectively responsible for executing Christ, and a landmark achievement of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s was a declaration stating the Jews should not be blamed for the crucifixion.
As the pope listened in a hushed St. Peter's Basilica, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa likened accusations against the pontiff and the Catholic Church in sex abuse scandals in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to "collective violence" suffered by the Jews.
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Benedict, 82, sat near the central altar at the early evening prayer service.
Cantalamessa, in his reflections for the pope on the Catholic Church's most solemn day, said he was inspired by a letter from a Jewish friend who was upset by the "attacks" against Benedict.
Jews "know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms," said Cantalamessa, a Franciscan priest.
Quoting from the letter, Cantalamessa said his Jewish friend was 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," he said, quoting from the letter.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, later said Cantalamessa wasn't speaking as a Vatican official when he compared "attacks'" on the pope to "collective" violence against Jews.
Such parallelism can "lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic Church," Lombardi said, adding that Cantalamessa was speaking about a letter from a friend who lived through a "painful experience."
Although the Vatican said Cantalamessa wasn't speaking as an official of the Holy See, its official daily newspaper L'Osservatore Romano ran the text of the homily in full.