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Published: Tuesday, 2/10/2009

The Pope and the bishop

THE uproar over the Vatican's rehabilitation of a prelate who denied the Holocaust may have settled down a bit with a demand by Pope Benedict XVI that the bishop recant. But left uncertain is why and how the disturbing bungle occurred in the first place.

Also unresolved are questions about what the Pope knew about the views of British Bishop Richard Williamson and when.

Late last month, Benedict revoked the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops from the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Williamson.

Just days before the papal decree was issued, the Briton gave an interview on Swedish state TV denying the existence of the Nazi gas chambers. Moreover, the bishop has a history of public statements denying the Holocaust, which he has never repudiated.

In an attempt to distance the Pope from the controversy, the Vatican claimed the Holy Father didn't know about Bishop Williamson's positions when he agreed to lift the excommunication last month. While that explanation strains credulity for some, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said he took Benedict at his word.

But what he couldn't believe was that Vatican aides didn't do more research to better inform the Pope about a prelate who is a known anti-Semite.

"If they Googled the name 'Bishop Williamson,' they'd find out he was a Holocaust denier," the rabbi said. "This did not require advanced research at the Vatican library or Oxford."

Last week, as the firestorm exploded over Bishop Williamson's impending return to the church, the Pope attempted to clarify his position on the Holocaust, saying he felt "full and indisputable solidarity" with Jews, and warning against denial of the full horror of the Nazi genocide. With that, the Vatican considered the Williamson case closed.

But it wasn't. Not until the Vatican - bowing to global outrage - demanded that Bishop Williamson "absolutely, unequivocally, and publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah" or Holocaust, or forgo service as a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, did critics relent.

Left unexplained is why wasn't that outrage expressed at the onset, before the damage and distress, and how could those at the highest levels of the Vatican so misread the public mood.



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