VATICAN CITY — The Vatican, bowing to the growing furor over Pope Benedict XVI's decision to accept a return to the church of a prelate who denied the Holocaust, made a dramatic turnaround Wednesday and demanded the bishop recant.
The Vatican sought to distance the pope from the controversy by saying he did not know about British Bishop Richard Williamson's views when he agreed to lift his excommunication last month. In the surprisingly public spat, some leading cardinals in Germany and at the Vatican blamed unidentified aides for not fully briefing the pope.
The statement was issued by the Vatican's Secretariat of State a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the pope to make a clearer rejection of Holocaust denials. Top German church officials, Jewish groups and the head of the U.S. bishops conference also condemned Williamson.
In a sign of just how much the Vatican had misread the public mood, the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was quoted Tuesday as saying he considered the matter "closed" after Benedict issued a lengthy denunciation of Holocaust deniers last week.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said he took Benedict at his word that he didn't know about Williamson's views, but said he couldn't believe Vatican aides didn't do more research to better inform the pope.
"This was absolutely a matter that was bungled at the highest levels of the Vatican," Hier said. "If they Googled the name 'Bishop Williamson,' they'd find out he was a Holocaust denier. This did not require advanced research at the Vatican Library or Oxford."
Williamson was shown on Swedish state television just days before the lifting of his excommunication was announced on Jan. 24, acknowledging his view that "there was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers" during World War II.
He said historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler."
Williamson subsequently apologized to the pope for having stirred controversy, but he did not repudiate his comments, in which he also said only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and none were gassed.
The controversy threatened to mar Benedict's strong record in building Catholic-Jewish relations, which included visits to the Nazi Auschwitz death camp in Poland and synagogues in Germany and the United States.
Jewish leaders welcomed the Vatican's move Wednesday.