Feb. 1, 2010 — -- Richard Williamson's complaints begin when he looks out the window of his office in Saint George's House, the London headquarters of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Just past the garden, at the base of a small hill in verdant Wimbledon Park, are a pond, golf course, croquet club and, most famously, the tennis courts.
The old man at the window likes tennis, which he admiringly calls the "greatest spectacle," a game that involves "one spirit, one will." In tennis, he says, it's as if two gladiators were fighting each other, "just without bloodshed."
But Williamson would not be true to form if he didn't smell damnation in even the noblest of spectacles. The outfits worn by female tennis players, the bishop says indignantly, "hardly reach past the middles of their thighs." Williamson has noticed female fans wearing even shorter skirts. "Aren't there are any men left who tell their daughters, sisters, wives or mothers that this sort of outfit is only meant for the eyes of their own husbands?"
The world has become a smaller place for the notorious bishop. Since he denied the existence of the Holocaust on television more than a year ago, causing serious problems for Pope Benedict XVI and almost triggering a revolt against Rome by the Catholic faithful, the ultra-conservative SSPX has kept him in virtual quarantine at its Wimbledon headquarters. Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior general of the SSPX, likens Williamson to uranium: "It's dangerous when you have it," he says, but you can't "simply leave it by the side of the road."
Fellay knows what he is talking about. Williamson has no intention of revising his views on the gas chambers. When Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld sent him a book about the history of the Holocaust last year, he set it aside, unread. "The fact is that the 6 million people who were supposedly gassed represent a huge lie," he wrote recently to his fellow members of the SSPX, noting that "a completely new world order was built" on this "fact." The Jews, he added, "became ersatz saviors thanks to the concentration camps."
Williamson, after refusing to pay a fine of €12,000 ($16,800), faces charges of inciting racial hatred in a trial in the southern German city of Regensburg set to begin on April 16. Although it is unclear whether he will appear at the trial in person, the bishop has already assembled a legal team that includes German lawyer Matthias Lossmann and the British attorney who once represented former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in his fight against extradition.
Both the obstinate bishop's refusal to abandon his preposterous Holocaust theories and the trial in Regensburg are as embarrassing to the SSPX as they are to the Vatican, which is currently in direct talks with the fundamentalists. During the monthly meetings, three theologians from the SSPX sit, almost as they were participating in another Vatican council, across from three papal theologians in the Palace of the Holy Office, which is home to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and is adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica. This is as close to the Vatican as it gets. Left-leaning and liberal theologians like Hans Küng have spent their lives dreaming in vain of such an encounter.
The 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, whose reforms helped to modernize the Catholic Church, is high up on the agenda of the members of the SSPX, who want to see it reversed as much as possible. For them, ecumenism is the stuff of the devil, the recognition of Judaism is a source of contention and the modern form of the liturgy is an impossible act of assimilation to the zeitgeist.
Their goal is to be recognized in Rome again after 22 years. The Vatican also wants to put an end to the division within the Church. But Williamson, who has been a thorn in the side of those seeking rapprochement, isn't going away.
If a fundamentalist bishop like Williamson were to become unaffiliated, he would have the potential to divide the church once again. He could consecrate new priests at any time or establish his own, even more radical movement. This would be inconvenient for both Benedict and the SSPX, which is why Williamson is being tolerated.
'These Men Are Rats'
Williamson's refuge is a small guest room on Arthur Road in southern London, where he has a view of Centre Court at Wimbledon. The room is in a plain-looking, newer building, adorned only with two columns flanking the front door. A sign at the entrance to a chapel in the garden calls upon the faithful to pray during the SSPX's upcoming "Rosary Crusade." Father Lindström, a gaunt Swede, ensures that only the right people are allowed to visit Williamson.
The bishop has a reputation for being unpredictable. Sometimes he gives the staff instructions to tell visitors that he is not home, but on one occasion he sat down next to a Christmas tree for an interview with a video blogger. An interview with SPIEGEL, which had been scheduled for some time, happened to fall on a bad day. Williamson was only willing to appear on a stair landing, and even then, all that was visible of him were one of his arms and his hand wearing his bishop's ring. His voice was easy to recognize, but he refused to speak directly with his interviewers, leaving Lindström to run up and down the stairs, delivering the questions and answers.
Later, Williamson decided to continue the interview with SPIEGEL by e-mail -- even though he was only in the next room. The visit had made him very angry. "We are at war," he raged, "and you are on the wrong side." German liberal intellectuals are as distasteful to him as short skirts on the tennis court. "These men are, at least objectively, rats," he wrote in a reference to SPIEGEL journalists.
There is a strict regimen at the London headquarters of the Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pii X, as the SSPX is called in Latin: wake up at 6:00 a.m., first prayers at 6:30, mass at 7:15, lunch at 12:45 p.m., rosary at 6:30, evening prayers at 9:00.
To the right of the entrance is the library, which has a separate cupboard for banned books. Guarded by two statues, one of Jesus and one of the Virgin Mary, a sign clearly identifies the dangerous publications in the cabinet as "Heresies/Errors." On the top shelf is a book by the liberal German theologian Karl Rahner, a key influence on the Second Vatican Council, and next to it is a book that, though considered an authority by more than a billion Catholics, is far too modern for the SSPX: the "Catechism of the Catholic Church."
Williamson lives on the second floor. This is where the bishop, who likes to perform lieder by Robert Schumann, removes his heavy bishop's ring and plays works by German composers on the piano. "Music," he says, "is an expression of harmony or disharmony in human souls."
He also spends much of his time surfing the Internet, where he has loyal fans. There are 520 people registered as friends on his Facebook page, and hundreds read his columns on the Web, which he writes under the pen name "Dinoscopus" -- a made-up word derived from dinosaur and episcopus (the Latin word for bishop). He cultivates his image as a reactionary and as keeper of the pure faith. Living in a large city is harmful, he recently pontificated while glancing at the tennis courts. It gets in the way of and destroys marriages, he said, turns young men into "washcloths" that are "washed out by liberalism," so much so that "their common sense is diluted."
Williamson is a sophisticated man who delivers powerful sermons. He is a literary scholar with a Cambridge degree who speaks perfect French, German and Spanish. He is also vain, appreciating refined manners and expensive clothes, and he forgets the world around him when he plays Beethoven.
And he is someone who believes that no Jews were killed in the Third Reich's gas chambers.
Bishop Fellay, Williamson's superior, looks distressed as he sits in his office at Schwandegg Palace in Menzingen, Switzerland. He fervently hopes "that Williamson doesn't explode." The palace offers a sweeping view of Alpine foothills in the canton of Zug, where the old spa town sits atop a 900-meter (2,950-foot) mountain. The voices of oblates, devout lay women who help the priests run the household, can be heard in the hallways.
"We have lost one of our four bishops," says Fellay. "We can't use him for anything anymore." He is struggling with himself and history, trying to find the right words and the appropriate amount of distance to the matter. He finds the whole thing "incredibly unpleasant," and says that he had believed that "the bishop had understood things better in the meantime." But unfortunately Williamson did not understand. Fellay says that his personal belief is that the Holocaust is "obviously" a fact.
But not all of his brothers are willing to agree. Shortly after the Williamson scandal broke in early 2009, an Italian priest, Father Floriano Abrahamowicz, speculated that the gas chambers may have been used merely "for disinfection," and that Erich Priebke, a former captain in the SS who was involved in and later convicted of the shootings of hundreds of civilians in Italy, was in fact not an executioner. This too was "unpleasant" for the SSPX leadership.
On the other hand, the whole debate has had its advantages. Because of Williamson, the SSPX has acquired a level of notoriety unprecedented since its establishment in 1969 by the renegade French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Ultra-conservatives have always loved the Pius Brothers, and now they are becoming heroes of the right-wing, anti-modernist movement. What should a superior general like Fellay do about this?
Appealing to Extremists
"We have an appeal for extremists, who we don't even want," says Fellay, for whom questions of faith are ultimately the most important issues. One of those questions of faith revolves around who should have the say in religious matters in Switzerland: the church, with its beautiful churches and bell towers, or the mosques, with their minarets? This is why Fellay has fueled the recent debate in Switzerland over banning minarets. In fact, he welcomed the debate, because, as he says, Islam is "aggressive in general."
On the other hand, the Pius disciples are perfectly calm and understanding when it comes to the mendacious and hate-filled speech coming from their own ranks. None of Williamson's colleagues get upset when the bishop writes disparagingly about women in his blog, calling them "less than zeroes" and insisting that they are "under the power of the man." "He should be your master," he writes.
The Catholic brothers in Stuttgart showed their aggressive side against gays by staging a protest against the city's Christopher Street Day parade, which celebrates gay pride. The priests held up signs that read "Save Children from Perversion," and one of them condemned the event as "moral pollution." He neglected to mention his fellow SSPX member's denial of the Holocaust.
To avoid misunderstandings, the ultra-conservatives have even hired their own PR specialist, Rudolph Lobmeyr, who once worked for the Austrian national public broadcaster ORF in Vienna, to explain the benefits of the Pius campaign to the public. "Fabric-softener faith is no longer wanted," he says. He insists that people are looking for decisive leadership and want to be able to divide the world into good and evil -- just as the SSPX does when it rages against gays, women and journalists. "It's a reflection of the desires of many people, and it's the secret to the society's growing popularity," Lobmeyr says.
"We are merely the thermometer indicating the fever in the body of the church," says SSPX leader Bishop Fellay. The society claims to have 600,000 supporters. It maintains six seminaries, 14 districts, 161 priories and 725 mass centers and is active in 1,000 locations worldwide. The society is growing in the United States, Asia and Africa.
It was this potential that the pope had in mind when he lifted the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops last year. Benedict is a traditionalist and, like the Pius Brothers, he loves the Latin mass, shares their ideas about morality and sometimes despairs of modern society, which could turn a sentence Williamson uttered on a Swedish television program into a global scandal.
Fellay reports triumphantly that the pope himself -- in keeping with the SSPX's demands -- apparently no longer places communion wafers into the hands of the faithful, but directly into their mouths. For Fellay, this represents yet another success in the battle against the modern church.
It is noon in the more than 700-year-old church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet in Paris, which has been occupied by the SSPX since 1977. All masses here are mumbled in accordance with the Latin ritual, accompanied by Gregorian chants, with the priest turning his back on the congregation -- all standard practices for centuries, until the Second Vatican Council destroyed the traditions. A noticeably large number of young people are kneeling on the cold stone floor, and the air is heavy with incense smoke.
The Paris branch of the SSPX has noticed a sharp increase in church attendance since the beginning of last year. The priests have had to increase their weekly supply of communion wafers by 300 wafers, so that there will be enough to place on the tongues of the faithful. Perhaps the Holocaust scandal was responsible for the rise in attendance, or perhaps the new additions to the flock were encouraged by the pope's lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops -- or perhaps both factors played a role.
France is the society's stronghold. It now has 100,000 supporters there, and 4,000 children attend its schools. Traditionalists see the movement as the future of Catholicism.
Niklaus Pfluger has just returned from mass at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet. In the hierarchy of the order, the Swiss priest is second only to Bishop Fellay. When Williamson shocked the church a year ago by denying the Holocaust in an interview, Fellay immediately sent Pfluger to Argentina, where Williamson was staying at the time, to stop the renegade bishop from talking to the media.
Pfluger is still puzzled about the motives of his fellow SSPX member. Sitting in the Bistrot Saint Honoré in Paris, over a plate of mussels and a glass of 2002 Ladoix 1er Cru, he attempts to piece together an explanation. Williamson, he says, happens to be a first-class provocateur and has always had strange ideas. Right away on Sept. 11, 2001, he claimed that the US government had staged the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. He also claims that it wasn't Japan but the White House that ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, in an effort to draw the Americans into World War II.
During a sermon in the Canadian province of Quebec in April 1989, Williamson said that the Jews had invented Auschwitz as a way to derive certain benefits. Someone filed a criminal complaint against him, and Williamson has done his best to avoid Quebec ever since.
"He is actually an artist and not a scholar," says Pfluger. "He gets an idea into his head, becomes fixated on it and exaggerates. But he doesn't study the documents." He calls Williamson a "ticking time bomb" for his organization, but he also points out that the bishop has many merits, and that he shouldn't be "exiled to the Moon."
Pfluger is also concerned about the health of the 69-year-old bishop, who has apparently had Parkinson's disease for several years. Could this explain his moody, unpredictable behavior? Pfluger and his fellow Pius Brothers have often been irritated by the emails they receive on a regular basis from London. In a recent email, Williamson wrote that "1.3 million deported people" were not gassed in the Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec and Sobibor concentration camps, but were simply transported to the part of the Soviet Union that was occupied by Germany. Ridiculous rumors to the contrary, Williamson added, should be ignored.
The society is also aware of Williamson's contacts with Ingrid Rimland, the wife of Ernst Zündel, who is currently in a German prison after having been convicted of incitement to Holocaust denial. Rimland continues to disseminate her husband's theories.
The bishop is also in touch via email with Swiss Holocaust denier Jürgen Graf, who is being sought by German, French and Swiss authorities. Graf believes that the idea of extermination camps was a Jewish invention. He plans to publish a new book about the Sobibor extermination camp, where about 250,000 Jews were killed in the gas chambers, entitled "Sobibor. Myth and Reality." Graf says that he hopes Williamson will "write an introduction" to his book.
The priests paid particular attention when Williamson, at the beginning of the year, described his sojourn in London as an "unplanned but pleasant sabbatical." It sounded as if he had had enough of the tennis skirts at Wimbledon, and was ready to start speaking out in public again.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan