ROME — A senior Vatican priest, speaking before Pope Benedict XVI at a Good Friday service, compared the world's outrage at sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to the persecution of the Jews, prompting angry responses from victims' advocates and consternation from Jewish groups.
A Vatican spokesman quickly distanced the Vatican from the remarks, which came on the day Christians mark the Crucifixion. The remarks underscored how much the Catholic Church has felt under attack from recent news reports and from criticism over how it has handled charges of child molestation against priests in the past.
The pope and his bishops have denounced abuses in the church, but many prelates and Vatican officials have lashed back at news reports that Benedict failed to act strongly enough against pedophile priests, once as archbishop of Munich and Freising in Germany in 1980 and once as a leader of the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Vatican has denied that he was at fault, and Vatican officials have variously described the reports as "deceitful," an effort to undermine the church and a "defamatory campaign."
Speaking in St. Peter's Basilica, the priest, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, took note that Easter and Passover fall during the same week this year, and he said he was led to think of the Jews.
"They 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, who serves under the title of preacher of the papal household. Then he quoted from what he said was a letter from a Jewish friend he did not identify.
"I am following the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful by the whole world," he said the friend wrote. "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."
Good Friday has traditionally been an uneasy day in Catholic-Jewish relations. Until the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholic liturgy included a prayer for the conversion of the Jews, and Catholic teaching held Jews responsible for the Crucifixion.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that Cantalamessa's homily represented the priest's own thoughts and were not an official Vatican statement. Lombardi said the remarks should not be construed as equating recent criticism of the Catholic Church with anti-Semitism.
"I don't think it's an appropriate comparison," he said. "That's why the letter should be read as a letter of solidarity by a Jew."
Yet the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published the remarks in today's edition, which appeared online on Friday evening.
Even as the priest spoke out against attacks on the church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, head of the German Bishops Conference, said Friday that sexual abuse victims were not helped enough "out of a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church."
The church, he said, was shaken by "the suffering inflicted on the victims, who often for decades could not put their injuries into words."
Bishops around Europe have been offering similar remarks in recent days, following a major statement by the pope on molestation in the Irish church.
Disclosures about hundreds of sex abuse cases have emerged in recent months in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and France, after a previous round of scandals in the United States.
A leading advocate for sex abuse victims in the United States, David Clohessy, called comparing criticism of the church to persecution of Jews "breathtakingly callous and misguided."
"Men who deliberately and consistently hide child sex crimes are in no way victims," he said. "And to conflate public scrutiny with horrific violence is about as wrong as wrong can be."
Another American victims' advocate rejected the Vatican's statement distancing itself from the remarks.
"Father Cantalamessa chose to equate calumny against the Jewish people as the same as criticism of Pope Benedict," said Kristine Ward of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition. "It is incomprehensible that Father Cantalamessa did this and that Pope Benedict, the ultimate authority in this church who presided at the service, did not stand during the service to disavow this connection to anti-Semitism."
The comments also ruffled Vatican-Jewish relations, which have often been tense during Benedict's papacy.
Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, who was host to Benedict at the Rome synagogue in January on a visit that helped calm waters after a year of tensions, laughed in seeming disbelief when asked about Cantalamessa's remarks.
"With a minimum of irony, I will say that today is Good Friday, when they pray that the Lord illuminate our hearts so we recognize Jesus," Di Segni said, referring to a prayer in the traditional Catholic liturgy calling for the conversion of the Jews. "We also pray that the Lord illuminate theirs."
Benedict caused friction with Jewish groups in 2007 when he issued a ruling making it easier to use the Latin Mass, including that Good Friday prayer.