It has been almost three weeks since Bishop Richard Williamson's controversial, Holocaust-denying interview was broadcast on Swedish television. Only now, though, is the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), to which Williamson belongs, taking steps to dampen the furore his comments created. On Monday, according to a report from the Argentinean news agency Diarios y Noticias, Williamson was removed from his position as head of a seminary not far from Buenos Aires.
The news agency cites Father Christian Bouchacourt, who heads up the SSPX in Latin America, as confirming Williamson's removal. "Monsignore Williamson's statements in no way reflect the views of our community," Couchacourt said in his statement.
Last Friday, the Society of St. Pius X in Italy banished a member, Floriano Abrahamowicz, for his comments saying that the gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were only used "for disinfection." He said he didn't know whether the gas chambers had been used to kill people because he had not studied the question. Abrahamowicz was based in Treviso and responsible for the SSPX community in northern Italy.
Additionally, the Web page of SSPX in the US has removed an article arguing that Jews are guilty of deicide for killing Jesus. The page was viewable as recently as last Friday.
The scandal over Holocaust denial erupted at the end of January when Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of four SSPX members, including Williamson. At the time he took the step, the pope was apparently unaware of Williamson's views on the Holocaust nor was he aware, despite an article in SPIEGEL prior to his decision, of the interview with Swedish television. The ensuing scandal has seriously damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church in Germany and elsewhere.
Last week, Benedict called on Williamson to retract his views on the Holocaust. In an interview with SPIEGEL, however, Williamson rebuffed the pope, saying that he first had to study the issue. He said he was planning on reading "Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers" by Jean-Claude Pressac. "Historical evidence is at issue, not emotions," Williamson told SPIEGEL. "And if I find this evidence, I will correct myself. But that will take time."
Benedict has been harshly criticized for his handling of the affair, with numerous bishops in Germany demanding that the pope take appropriate steps to fix the damage done. Chancellor Angela Merkel even got involved last week, saying she thought the Catholic Church should more clearly distance itself from Holocaust denial.
Merkel also spoke with Pope Benedict XVI on the phone on Sunday. "It was a good and constructive conversation, based on their shared concern that the Holocaust remain a constant and terrible warning for the people of the world," read a joint statement released by Berlin and the Vatican.
Still, despite efforts by the pope and by SSPX, it is unlikely that the uproar will die down quickly. Freiburg Archbishop Robert Zollitsch demanded that Williamson be thrown out of the church in a Sunday interview with the tabloid Bild. "Mr. Williamson is impossible and irresponsible. I don't see a place for him anymore in the Catholic Church."
Furthermore, there is growing evidence of a wave of Germans leaving the Catholic Church. In Germany, church membership is registered for tax reasons, and officials in a number of cities have reported rapidly climbing numbers of those requesting to be stricken from the Catholic rolls. "The wave of people leaving the church has begun," confirmed Father Eberhard von Gemming, who heads the German language editorial offices at Radio Vatican.
According to a survey taken by the polling firm Emnid, 67 percent of Catholics in Germany think that Pope Benedict XVI damaged the church by lifting the exommunication of Bishop Williamson.