New criticism of pope further clouds Easter Week

VATICAN CITY, April 3, 2010 (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI faced new criticism Saturday after his preacher likened attacks on the Catholic Church over the paedophile priest furore to anti-Semitism, further marring Easter Week celebrations.

Jewish groups and those representing victims of abuse by Catholic priests denounced the remarks by the pope's personal preacher during a Good Friday homily.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses faithful as he leads the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) on Good Friday on April 2, 2010 at Rome's Colosseum. AFP PHOTO

Rome's chief rabbi joined the chorus of criticism, saying in an interview published Saturday: "It’s an inappropriate parallel and of dubious taste."

The comparison was not made on "any day, but on Good Friday, that is the saddest day in the history of relations between Christians and Jews," Riccardo Di Segni told the Italian daily La Stampa.

The parallel was drawn in a letter that Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal Household, said he received from an unnamed Jewish friend.

"The stereotyping, the transfer of personal responsibility and blame to a collective blame reminds me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," he wrote, according to Cantalamessa.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi later told AFP the comments were from "a letter read by the preacher and not the official position of the Vatican."

The new woes for the 82-year-old pope came as he prepared to lead an Easter vigil in St Peter's Basilica late Saturday.

Benedict made no mention of the child abuse controversy during a traditional procession later Friday at Rome's Colosseum re-enacting Jesus Christ's Passion.

But the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the largest and most active of such groups in the United States, denounced the remarks, saying they insulted "both abuse victims and Jewish people."

"The remarks are shameful, inaccurate and a complete distortion of history," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, demanding an apology from the pope himself.

The child abuse scandal has engulfed much of Europe and the United States, prompting harsh criticism of the Vatican's handling of the scourge.

The pope himself faces allegations that, as archbishop of Munich and later as the Vatican's chief morals enforcer, he helped to protect predator priests.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, meanwhile, told the BBC in a radio interview to be aired next week that the Irish Catholic Church had lost "all credibility" over its massive abuse scandal compounded by evidence of cover-ups by high-ranking prelates, the Times of London reported Saturday.

"An institution so deeply bound into the life of a society suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility -- that's not just a problem for the Church, it is a problem for everybody in Ireland," said Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of more than 70 million Anglicans.

The comments risk creating tensions with the Vatican ahead of the pope's visit to Britain in September.

Predominantly Catholic Ireland was rocked by two reports in the last year detailing child sex abuse stretching back decades and Church leaders' complicity in covering it up.

Leading prelates have rallied around the pope in the run-up to Easter, the most joyous day in the Christian calendar.

The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano on Friday published messages of support from around the world including a letter signed by a group of 70 leading French figures "paying homage to the pope's will to shed light" abuse cases while expressing horror at paedophilia crimes and solidarity with the victims.

The letter, signed by writers, a philosophy professor and a Lutheran pastor among others, accused the media of unfair reporting.

The Osservatore also published messages of support for the pope from the Canadian bishops and from the Latin American Episcopal Conference, both of which attacked media coverage of the story.

But in Austria Friday, the Platform for Victims of Violence by the Church said it had received reports of 174 more cases of maltreatment and sexual abuse in Catholic institutions since creating a hotline two weeks ago.

And in New York, about 10 victims of abuse by paedophile priests demonstrated in front of Saint Patrick's cathedral during the Good Friday service.

The pope celebrates Easter mass on Sunday, to be followed by his traditional "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) message.

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