STOCKHOLM – A Swedish TV program to be aired Wednesday claims that top Vatican officials knew that an ultraconservative British bishop was a Holocaust-denier when his excommunication was lifted in January.
The program, which was obtained by The Associated Press prior to broadcast, could add new fuel to the controversy over Bishop Richard Williamson.
Jews and Catholics worldwide were outraged after Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Williamson, along with three other ultraconservative bishops, in an attempt to bring dissidents back into the mainstream church.
The order, dated Jan. 21, came as Sweden's SVT aired an interview recorded two months earlier in which Williamson said he didn't believe any Jews were killed in gas chambers during World War II.
Vatican officials have said they didn't know about the interview at the time. Benedict later condemned Williamson's remarks and spoke out against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
Yet in a follow-up report, SVT says the Vatican had been informed of Williamson's Holocaust-denial shortly after the interview was recorded in November. It doesn't suggest, however, that the pope knew about the remarks.
The program singles out Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who had been leading efforts to heal the schism with the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X. The Vatican announced in July that Castrillon Hoyos was stepping down after reaching the customary retirement age of 80.
The SVT program says Sweden's Catholic diocese informed the apostolic nuncio — the Vatican envoy to Sweden — about Williamson's remarks and that he in turn informed Vatican officials, including Castrillon Hoyos.
"Naturally we passed all the information that we had on to the nuncio. After that I don't really know how it moved along," Stockholm Bishop Anders Arborelius told SVT.
In a statement Wednesday, the diocese reiterated that it had sent a report about the content of the interview to the Vatican in November 2008.
The SVT program says the Vatican envoy, Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, confirmed off-camera that he contacted several people in the Vatican, including Castrillon Hoyos, immediately after receiving the report in November.
Tscherrig did not immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
In a statement commenting on the program, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was "absolutely without foundation to claim or even insinuate that the pope was informed in advance of Williamson's positions."
"The pope has explained the reason for the remission of the excommunication as a gesture in favor of church unity and at the same time showed the total groundlessness of the accusations that he (the pope) showed a lack of respect for the Jewish people," Lombardi said.
The statement didn't address whether other Vatican officials knew about Williamson's remarks.
Castrillon Hoyos said in a newspaper interview Jan. 29 that no one at the Vatican knew about Williamson's views until after the decree had been signed.
"We absolutely didn't know anything about this Williamson," he told the Corriere della Sera.
Castrillon Hoyos had been head of the Pontifical "Ecclesia Dei" Commission, which was charged with reconciling with the Society of St. Pius X. In announcing his retirement on July 8, the Vatican said that effort would now be headed by Cardinal William Levada, the highest-ranking U.S. churchman in the Vatican hierarchy.
Levada heads the Vatican's powerful orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict headed for decades before becoming pope in 2005.
"(The pope) recognized with candor the limits of internal and external Vatican communication, and gave a new status to the Ecclesia Dei Commission, just to guarantee a better and safer way in dealing with matters relating to relations with traditionalists," Lombardi said in the statement Wednesday.
"To relaunch the 'Williamson case' can only serve to continue to create confusion for no reason," he said.
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement that the new SVT report "calls into question the repeated Vatican assertions it had no prior knowledge of Bishop Williamson's views, and would be a source of deep distress that the Vatican has not been candid with survivors of the tragedy of the Holocaust."
In last year's Swedish interview, Williamson denied that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. He said about 200,000 or 300,000 were murdered and none were gassed.
Williamson later apologized for his remarks, saying he would never have made them if he had known "the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise." But he did not say his comments had been erroneous, nor that he no longer believed them.