VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI's personal preacher on Friday likened accusations against the pope and the Catholic church in the sex abuse scandal to "collective violence" suffered by the Jews.
Reaction from Jewish groups and victims of clerical sex abuse ranged from skepticism to fury.
The Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa said in a Good Friday homily with the pope listening in St. Peter's Basilica that a Jewish friend wrote to him to say the accusations remind him of the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism."
The 82-year-old pontiff looked weary as he sat near the central altar during the early evening prayer service before he was scheduled to take part in a candlelit Way of the Cross procession near the Colosseum that commemorates Christ's suffering before his crucifixion.
Thousands of Holy Week pilgrims were in St. Peter's Square as the church defends itself against accusations that Benedict had a role in covering up sex abuse cases.
The "coincidence" that Passover falls in the same week as Easter celebrations prompted Cantalamessa to think about Jews, said the preacher, a Franciscan who offers reflections at Vatican Easter and Advent services.
"They 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," the preacher said.
Stephan Kramer, general-secretary of Germany's Central Council of Jews, said Cantalamessa's remarks were "a so-far-unheard-of insolence."
"It is repulsive, obscene and most of all offensive toward all abuse victims as well as to all the victims of the Holocaust," Kramer said. "So far I haven't seen St. Peter burning, nor were there outbursts of violence against Catholic priests. I'm without words. The Vatican is now trying to turn the perpetrators into victims."
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, US director of inter-religious relations for the American Jewish Committee, called the comments "an unfortunate use of language."
"The collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault," Greenebaum said.
Quoting from the letter from the Jewish friend, who wasn't identified by Cantalamessa, the preacher said that he 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,'" Cantalamessa said his friend wrote him.
In the sermon, he referred to the sexual abuse of children by clergy, saying "unfortunately, not a few elements of the clergy are stained" by the violence." But Cantalamessa said he didn't want to dwell on the abuse of children, saying "there is sufficient talk outside of here."
Peter Isely, the Milwaukee-based director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, denounced the anti-Semitism analogy as "reckless and irresponsible."
"They're sitting in the papal palace, they're experiencing a little discomfort, and they're going to compare themselves to being rounded up or lined up and sent in cattle cars to Auschwitz?" he said. "You cannot be serious."
Benedict didn't speak after the homily, but, in a tired-sounding voice, chanted prayers. He leaned up to remove a red cloth covering a tall crucifix, which was passed to him by an aide. He took off his shoes, knelt and prayed before the cross.
The head of Germany's Roman Catholic bishops said earlier in an unusually forthright Good Friday statement that the church in the pope's homeland failed to help victims of clerical sex abuse because it wanted to protect its reputation.
Clerics have neglected helping abuse victims by a "wrongly intended desire to protect the church's reputation," Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg said.
The news about sexual and physical abuse of children by priests and other employees leaves the church with "sadness, horror and shame," he said.
Reports of new cases have been cropping up almost daily in neighboring Austria, where the country's top Catholic, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, held a service for victims and acknowledged church guilt in the controversy this week.
Austria's Platform Of Those Affected By Church Violence — a group that includes victims, psychologists, psychiatrists and lawyers — said about 150 people had called a new hot line for victims of abuse by clergy and church workers, with about a third claiming they had been sexually abused and the rest reporting physical or verbal abuse.
In 1980, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, allowed a pedophile priest to be transferred from the northwestern city of Essen to undergo therapy in Munich, where he was then archbishop.
The Munich archdiocese says Benedict wasn't involved in a lower-ranking official's later decision to allow the priest to return to pastoral work. The Rev. Peter Hullermann went on to work with youths again and was sentenced for sexual abuse in 1986.
Germany's prestigious Regensburg Domspatzen boys choir once led by the
pope's brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, as well as the school that
sends many students to the choir, also have faced allegations of sexual
and more general physical abuse.
An Associated Press tally has documented 73 cases with allegations of
sexual abuse by priests against minors over the past decade in Italy,
with more than 235 victims.
Italian prosecutor Pietro Forno said that once investigations have
gotten under way, church officials have never tried to interfere or
hinder the probes. But he added, "In the many years that I have dealt
with this, never — and I stress, never — have I received a single
complaint from bishops, or priests. And that's a bit odd."
The interview with Il Giornale, a conservative national daily, was published Thursday.
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin