Vatican Officials Admit PR Disaster Papal Adviser Concedes 'Management Errors'

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is in charge of the Vatican's relations with the Jewish community, has acknowledged that mistakes were made in the decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denier. A German bishop has called the move "catastrophic" and is demanding an apology and now Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for greater clarity from the Vatican.

The criticism unleashed by Pope Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denier  shows no sign of abating and the condemnation from his native Germany has been particularly sharp. On Tuesday, even Chancellor Angela Merkel had scathing words for the way Rome has handled the situation. However, there are signs that the Vatican is realizing just what a public relations disaster it has caused, with a leading papal adviser admitting that mistakes have been made.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is in charge of the Vatican department that deals with Jewish relations, acknowledged that the Vatican had made "management errors" with its decision to lift the excommunication of four bishops belonging to the archconservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX).

"I observe the debate with great concern. There were misunderstandings and management errors in the Curia," Kasper told the German service of Radio Vatican on Monday evening. He pointed to a "lack of communication in the Vatican" while laying emphasis on the fact that the four men had only been partially rehabilitated and were still suspended. The radio station is the official mouthpiece of the Curia, and Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung described Kasper's statements as having an "official character."

The announcement on Jan. 24 that Rome was lifting the excommunication of the four reactionary bishops has provoked an international outcry in the light of recent comments made by one of the men, British-born Richard Williamson. In an interview with Swedish TV he denied that there had ever been gas chambers and claimed that "only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews" had died in Nazi concentration camps rather than the figure of 6 million accepted by historians. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany and public prosecutors here have opened an investigation into Williamson's comments because the interview was conducted in the German city of Regensburg.

The criticism of the Vatican's decision has been particularly cutting in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel entered into the fray on Tuesday, demanding that the Vatican make it clear that it will not tolerate Holocaust denial. "If a decision of the Vatican gives rise to the impression that the Holocaust may be denied, this cannot be left to stand," Merkel said. "It's a matter of affirming very clearly on the part of the pope and the Vatican, that there can be no denial here," she said, adding that in her view this had "not yet been made sufficiently clear."

Merkel, who is a Lutheran, added that she usually would not judge internal decisions made within in the church but that the current debate dealt with a fundamental issue.

And even the pope's strongest supporters have been left dismayed by the decision. Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who is a highly influential figure in Germany and serves as the bishop of Mainz, has described the pope's decision to rehabilitate Williamson as "catastrophic" and said that many people were very disappointed by Benedict XVI's move. Speaking to the Südwestrundfunk radio station on Monday, Lehmann said that there should be a clear apology "from a high position."

He also berated Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the president of the Ecclesia Dei papal commission, who had told an Italian newspaper that he had not been aware of Williamson's comments on the Holocaust. Lehmann said that there "had to be consequences for those who are responsible here."

Meanwhile, in a commentary broadcast on the station, the head of Radio Vatican's German service, Father Eberhard von Gemmingen, spoke of misunderstandings and a lack of professionalism within the Curia. "Pray for the pope and his staff," he said. "A misunderstanding and debacle like this can never be allowed to happen again."

The debacle has revealed weak communications structures within the Catholic Church, and many priests have complained about a lack of consultation. Last week Robert Zollitsch, the chairman of the German Episcopal Conference, complained: "We were not asked, we were not informed in advance," about the plans to rehabilitate the SSPX.

Archbishop of Hamburg Werner Thissen has accused the Vatican of "sloppy work," telling the Hamburger Abendblatt on Monday that this had caused a "loss of trust" in the Catholic Church.

However, there are also clergy in Germany who have leaped to the pope's defense. The archbishop of Munich and Freising, Reinhard Marx, said that Pope Benedict had been offering the hand of reconciliation to those who had split from the church. Speaking to the ZDF television channel on Monday, Marx insisted that: "Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites have no place in the Catholic Church."

Meanwhile, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, also defended Benedict -- saying that it was the pope's duty to search for and restore unity within the church. "That is what the pope has done, no more, no less." The lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops is seen as the first step in a process of returning them to the Catholic fold. The SSPX broke from the Vatican in the 1980s after its founder French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre rejected reforms made at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which included allowing masses to be given in languages other than Latin.

Any hopes that the SSPX will take the necessary steps toward ridding itself of its deeply traditionalist views look set to be disappointed. "We won't change our positions," one of the bishops, Bernard Tisser de Mallerais, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa on Monday. "Instead we will convert Rome."

smd -- with wire reports
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