Page last updated at 13:10 GMT, Saturday, 3 April 2010 14:10 UK

Outrage at anti-Semitism comparison by Pope preacher

Father Cantalamessa is the only person allowed to preach to the Pope

Jewish groups and victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests have condemned the Pope's preacher for comparing criticism of the pontiff to anti-Semitism.

US-based abuse victims' group Snap said the remarks were "morally wrong".

The head of Germany's Central Council of Jews described the Easter sermon as unprecedented "insolence".

The Catholic Church has been rocked by abuse scandals this year. The Vatican said Raniero Cantalamessa's remarks did not represent its official view.

Drawing such parallels could "lead to misunderstandings", Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi told the Associated Press.

'Repulsive and offensive'

Fr Cantalamessa's sermon was printed in full on the front page of the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

David Willey
David Willey, BBC Vatican correspondent

The Vatican has been engaged for the past few months in a damage-control operation, defending itself vigorously over claims it covered up cases of sexual abuse in recent decades.

But on one of the most solemn weekends in the Christian calendar, it sparked fresh controversy over its handling of the scandals, which have erupted in many countries.

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa probably thought it would be helpful to compare recent criticism against the Church to anti-Semitism, but he hit absolutely the wrong note.

Although Benedict XVI has made a point of visiting Israel, relations are still tetchy to say the least and comments like this won't help.

But the bigger problem is not ties with Israel, but the damage done to the credibility of the Catholic Church worldwide; this is a very serious crisis for the Vatican.

The Pope, meanwhile, appears to have decided to refrain from any direct comment on the abuse scandals this Easter.

The Catholic Church has been engulfed this year by sex abuse scandals, many dating back decades, in Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, the Pope's native Germany and the US.

At a Good Friday service in St Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Preacher of the Pontifical Household compared criticism of the Church over abuse allegations to "the collective violence suffered by the Jews".

Fr Cantalamessa said he had been inspired by a letter from a Jewish friend who had been upset by the "attacks" against the Pope.

He then read part of the letter, in which his friend said he 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 and the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," he quoted the letter as saying, as the Pope listened.

The comments swiftly provoked angry reactions both from Jewish groups and those representing abuse victims.

The secretary general of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Stephan Kramer, told the Associated Press the remarks were "repulsive, obscene and most of all offensive towards all abuse victims as well as to all the victims of the Holocaust".

A spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) said the sermon had been "reckless and irresponsible".

'Failure to act'

Benedict is to lead a Saturday vigil service in St Peter's, before delivering his traditional Urbi et Orbi - "for the city and the world" - message and blessing on Easter Sunday.

Pope Benedict at the Way of the Cross procession

The pontiff has been accused personally of failing to take action against a suspected abuser during his tenure as archbishop of Munich - a claim the Vatican strongly denies.

Critics also say that when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with sex abuse cases, he did not act against a priest in the US state of Wisconsin who is thought to have abused some 200 deaf boys.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had also allowed a case against a priest in Arizona to languish at the Vatican for years, despite repeated pleas from a local bishop for the man to be removed from the priesthood.

Documents reportedly show that in 1990, members of a Church tribunal found that Rev Michael Teta had molested children as far back as the late 1970s.

The panel referred the case to Cardinal Ratzinger. But it took 12 years from the time the future Pope assumed control of the case in a signed letter until Rev Teta was removed from the ministry, it was alleged.

Meanwhile, a number of Palestinian Christians said Israel had denied them access to Easter Saturday celebrations in Jerusalem's Old City.

Israel said it had issued 10,000 permits and that numbers had to be restricted for security and safety reasons.

There are over 200,000 Christians living in Israel and on the West Bank and many need passes from Israel in order to visit Jerusalem.

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