Feb. 4, 2009— -- Pope Benedict XVI's latest public relations fiasco centers on British Bishop Richard Williamson, a longtime Holocaust denier who was excommunicated 20 years ago. Last month, Benedict began the process of bringing the prelate back into the fold.
Under pressure, the Vatican today issued a statement, saying that before Williamson can be fully readmitted into the church, he must recant his statements denying the Holocaust.
"The positions of Bishop Williamson (on the Holocaust) are absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father," the statement read. "The Holocaust must be for all a warning against the forgetting, against the denial or reductionism. ... Violence against an individual human is violence against all."
The pope's announcement on Jan. 24 that he was lifting the excommunication on the traditionalist bishop came days after Williamson made another round of anti-Semitic comments on Swedish television.
"The Germans have a guilt complex about their having gassed 6 million Jews, but I don't think 6 million Jews were gassed," Williamson said.
The Vatican insists the pope was unaware of Williamson's history of inflammatory statements when he rehabilitated him and three other bishops. Still, the announcement touched off an uproar around the world.
"The fact that the Vatican and Pope Benedict would welcome back a Holocaust denier [was] shocking and outrageous," said Rabbi Eric Greenberg, director of interfaith policy for the Anti-Defamation League. "It was a blow to us and the Jewish people. Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism."
Williamson was originally excommunicated, not because of his comments about the Holocaust, but because the Vatican had not approved his ordination as bishop. The separation caused a long-running rift with right-wing Catholics. The Vatican says the pope was trying to bring the bishop back into the fold to mend this divide.
"The Vatican has rather spectacularly failed to communicate [its] logic to the outside world," said John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. That problem, says Allen, is systemic.