VATICAN CITY – Reacting to two weeks of outrage, the Vatican demanded Wednesday that a bishop retract his public statements denying that the Nazis killed millions of Jews in the Holocaust.
In addition, the Vatican asserted for the first time that Pope Benedict XVI was unaware of Bishop Richard Williamson’s views when the pontiff lifted the excommunication of the British clergyman and three other bishops who belong to an ultraconservative religious order estranged from the church.
Williamson had said in an interview aired by Swedish television that he thought only 200,000 or 300,000 Jews died in Nazi concentration camps and that none died in gas chambers.
“Bishop Williamson … must distance himself in absolutely unequivocal and public fashion from his positions regarding the Shoah, which were not known by the Holy Father when the excommunication was lifted,” said the statement by the Vatican, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
Jewish leaders praised the Vatican’s strong words.
“This was the sign the Jewish world has been waiting for,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, according to media reports.
Nonetheless, the new statement that the pope had not known about Williamson’s opinions reinforced questions about leadership and communication in the Vatican. Even within the church, experts suggested that Benedict XVI’s inner circle needs to keep him better-informed and adopt a more modern, aggressive approach to handling sensitive issues.
“This latest controversy and others that preceded it … point to a fatal, systemic flaw in the Benedict papacy that is destroying his effectiveness as pope: He does not consult experts who might challenge his views and inclinations,” wrote Father Thomas J. Reese, an expert at Georgetown University, in an analysis released Wednesday.
Reese also described the handling of the initial announcement about the bishop “as a disaster” and said the pope has “little PR sense.”