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A Matter of Deflection?

April 8, 2010
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Who would have imagined that there would be a Jewish angle to the sex-abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church? Yet here we are, still reeling from the stunning pronouncement by the pope's preacher comparing the scrutiny of the Vatican to collective violence against Jews through the ages.

The comparison was irresponsible at best, pernicious at worst. That it would happen a week before Yom Hashoah -- the sacred commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust -- made it all the more insidious, given the church's questionable role during the Holocaust.

It's even more painful that in the era of post-Vatican II -- when Catholic-Jewish relations have improved dramatically and popes have apologized for the suffering the church has caused the Jewish people -- this would explode as it has.

The Vatican rightly distanced itself from the remarks -- at least one archbishop called them "reprehensible" -- and the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, has since apologized for offending anyone with his words delivered during a Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica attended by Pope Benedict XVI.

Cantalamessa, noting that Passover and Easter fell this year in the same week, spoke during the service about a letter he said was from a Jewish friend. He quoted the friend as saying that the "concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful by the whole world" remind him "of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism."

The insensitive remarks followed an earlier story in Italy's La Repubblica reporting that "certain Catholic circles" suspected that "a New York Jewish lobby" was responsible for the outcry against the pope.

We never thought it proper to weigh in on the sex-abuse scandal plaguing the church, but the recent efforts to drag the Jews into the crisis as a way of deflecting attention from facing the truth -- even among peripheral figures -- is too close for comfort.

While the Vatican's instincts to protect itself are understandable, it appears to be doing so at all costs, reminiscent of its refusal to fully own up to the role it played during the Holocaust. The questions being asked about what the current pope knew and when he knew it regarding clergy abuse of children are the same questions that Jews and scholars have been asking about what Pope Pius XII knew and what he did -- or didn't do -- when the gates of sanity were closing in around the Jews of Europe.

Even as the church continues to grapple with its problems, it must heed the growing call to open up the Vatican's wartime archives to determine what transpired during the Holocaust, especially before it moves ahead with its plan to bestow sainthood on Pope Pius XII. If nothing else can be learned from the most recent imbroglio, a little caution -- in words and deeds -- is in order.

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