Father Raniero Cantalamessa's remarks were described as 'repulsive' and 'obscene' by Germany’s Central Council of Jews. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Victims' groups and Jewish representatives expressed anger last night after the pope's personal preacher compared criticism of the Catholic hierarchy over cleric sex abuse with persecution of the Jews.
Addressing Pope Benedict and other members of the Vatican leadership at a service in St Peter's, Father Raniero Cantalamessa read a letter he said he had got from a Jewish friend. It said: "The passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of antisemitism."
Peter Iseley of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests said: "To compare the discomfort that Vatican officials are finally feeling because of these decade-long cover-ups to the sufferings of the Jewish people down the centuries, especially during Holy Week, which was one of the most fearful times to be a Jew, is beyond even ridiculous."
The Jewish magazine, Tablet, called Cantalamessa "outrageously wrong". It said the church had "moved to cover up, paper over, and otherwise tacitly sanction paedophilia. Like the church, Jews know what it feels like to be victims of collective persecution. Unlike the church, Jews don't know what it feels like for their victimhood to be deserved."
Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of Germany's Central Council of Jews said: "It is repulsive, obscene and most of all offensive toward all abuse victims as well as to all the victims of the Holocaust."
Within hours the Vatican sought to distance itself from his comments. Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said Cantalamessa wasn't speaking as a Vatican official. Such comparisons can "lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic church," Lombardi said.
Catholic leaders have protested that the pope is being unfairly targeted by the media, arguing that he has taken a hard line towards paedophile clerics since being elected pontiff. But reports in the New York Times have called into question his conduct while still a cardinal.
It has been alleged that, while he was its head, a Vatican department counselled against the indictment under church law of a priest who had abused up to 200 deaf boys in his care. And it has been claimed that, as archbishop of Munich, Benedict did nothing to stop a known paedophile being given duties that would bring him into contact with children.
The pope may have been hearing his preacher's words for the first time last night. But it is likely the high-profile sermon in St Peter's on one of the most solemn dates in the Christian calendar would have been circulated for comment at a senior level in the Vatican.
Before reading the letter, Cantalamessa referred to the abuse scandal. He acknowledged that "unfortunately, not a few elements of the clergy are stained". But he said he did not wish to dwell on the subject because "there is sufficient talk outside here".
Cardinal Wilhelm Frick and the clergy join Joseph Goebbels and Nazi leaders with a Hitler high-five