VATICAN CITY -- At a solemn Good Friday service, Pope Benedict XVI's personal preacher likened the tide of allegations that the pontiff has covered up sex abuse cases to the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism." But within hours, facing a storm of criticism at the comparison, the Vatican felt it necessary to distance the pope from the preacher's remarks.
Jewish groups and victims' groups responded that it was inappropriate to compare the discomfort being experienced by the church leadership in the sex abuse scandal to the violence that culminated in the Holocaust. The Vatican has been on the defensive in recent days, saying the church has been singled out and collectively stereotyped for the problem of pedophilia, which it says is a society-wide issue.
Invoking any comparison with anti-Semitism was particularly sensitive on Good Friday, itself a delicate day in a decades-long effort by Jews and Catholics to overcome a legacy of mistrust. There was a long-held Catholic belief that Jews collectively were responsible for executing Christ, and a landmark achievement of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s was a declaration stating the Jews should not be blamed for the crucifixion.
As the pope listened in a hushed St. Peter's Basilica, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa likened accusations against the pontiff and the Catholic Church in sex abuse scandals in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to "collective violence" suffered by the Jews.
Benedict, 82, looked weary as he sat near the central altar at the early evening prayer service.
Cantalamessa, in his reflections for the pope on the church's most solemn day, said he was inspired by a letter from an unidentified Jewish friend who was upset by the "attacks" against Benedict.
Jews "know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms," said Cantalamessa, a Franciscan priest.
Quoting from the letter, Cantalamessa said his Jewish friend was following "with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful of the whole world."
"The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," he said, quoting from the letter.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, later contacted The Associated Press and said Cantalamessa wasn't speaking as a Vatican official when he compared "attacks'" on the pope to "collective" violence against Jews.
Such parallelism can "lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic Church," Lombardi said, adding that Cantalamessa was speaking about a letter from a friend who lived through a "painful experience."
Benedict didn't speak after the homily but chanted prayers in a tired voice. He leaned up to remove a red cloth covering a tall crucifix, which was passed to him by an aide. He took off his shoes, knelt and prayed before the cross.
Two hours later, Benedict, wearing a red cloak in the breezy night, knelt in prayer at the Colosseum as he watched the faithful carry a tall, slim wooden cross in Rome's traditional torchlit Via Crucis procession that commemorates Christ's suffering and death. Thousands of people clutching prayerbooks and candles crowded around the ancient arena.
During the procession, "we meditated on his (Jesus') suffering and discovered how deep his love was and is for us," Benedict said in brief remarks at the end of the 90-minute ceremony. Then he blessed the crowd, prompting cheers and some shouts of "Long live the pope!"
Victims say Benedict -- as a former archbishop of Munich and later as a Vatican cardinal directing the Holy See's policy on handling abuse cases -- was part of a culture of cover-up and confidentiality basically devised to protect church hierarchy.
Cantalamessa's likening the accusations to the Holocaust rankled U.S. Jewish leaders.
"Shame on Father Cantalamessa," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, in a statement. "The Vatican is entitled to defend itself, but the comparison with anti-Semitic persecution is offensive and unsustainable. We are sorely disappointed."
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who said he recently had "cordial" talks at the Vatican with church and other Jewish leaders as part of efforts on both sides to improve Catholic-Jewish relations, sounded dismayed.
"It's an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault," said Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee.
A vocal U.S.-based victims lobby, SNAP, reacted scathingly to the sermon.
"It's heartbreaking to see yet another smart, high-ranking Vatican official making such callous remarks that insult both abuse victims and Jewish people," said David Clohessy of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's morally wrong to equate actual physical violence and hatred against a large group of innocent people with mere public scrutiny of a small group of complicit officials."
"The Catholic hierarchy has engaged in and still engages in widely documented, self-serving and ongoing cover-ups of devastating clergy sex crimes. That's why church records are being disclosed, predator priests are being exposed and Catholic officials feel besieged."