Published October 16, 2013
ALBANO LAZIALE, Italy – The bitterly protested funeral of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke was called off hours after it was to have taken place Tuesday by his lawyer, who said police prevented friends and family members from attending amid a noisy protest against the planned religious ceremony.
Shouting "murderer" and "executioner," hundreds of people jeered as Priebke's coffin arrived for the funeral Mass to be celebrated by a splinter Catholic group opposed to the Vatican's outreach to Jews. Protesters even heckled a priest arriving at the gates, yelling "Shame." One woman fainted.
But Priebke's lawyer, Paolo Giachini, told The Associated Press the funeral did not take place "because authorities did not allow people to enter who wanted to come in. Everything was ready. We were waiting for those who should have arrived to participate."
They included Priebke's son Ingo, other lawyers in Giachini's firm, along and some younger, right-wing sympathizers, Giachini said. "They were there for a religious ceremony. They didn't have banners or other political manifestations," he said.
The casket remained inside and Giachini said he did not know what would happen next. He said he was turning over responsibility for future decisions to the family and expressed disappointment at the "indignities" that prevented the ceremony.
Since Priebke's death on Friday at age 100, debate has raged over what to do with his remains. Pope Francis' vicar for Rome refused him a funeral in a Catholic Church and Rome's police chief backed him up, citing concerns for public order.
Priebke participated in one of the worst massacres in German-occupied Italy during World War II, the slaughter of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome. Tensions have been high ever since he died and left behind an interview in which he denied Jews were gassed in the Holocaust.
No one appeared ready to handle Priebke's service, until, in a surreal twist, the schismatic Society of St. Pius X in the city of Albano Laziale south of Rome stepped forward to celebrate the funeral Mass. The society, known for the anti-Semitic views of some of its members, celebrates the pre-Vatican II old Latin Mass. Where Priebke will be buried remains unresolved.
The society was formed in 1969, opposed to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its outreach to Jews. It split from Rome after its leader consecrated bishops without papal consent. It currently has no legal standing in the Catholic Church.
As Giachini spoke by telephone from within the splinter group's complex late Tuesday evening, Italian television broadcast images of scuffles between demonstrators protesting the funeral and right-wing extremists who were among those denied entry.
"They are trying to enter because they want to take the casket," Giachini said. "I don't know ... they want to damage it, as they did to Mussolini. They want to enter by force and tear everything apart."
Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini was killed by partisans in 1945, and his body was strung up in a Milan piazza.
Despite Giachini's statements that demonstrators protesting the funeral were trying to enter the grounds, witnesses said there were no signs that the crowd tried to breach police lines at the society's gates. Rather, they said the right-wing demonstrator threw bottles and rocks.
Police declined immediate comment on the dynamics.
In a statement, the society said it agreed to perform the funeral at the family's request because "no matter what the guilt or sins" anyone who dies reconciled with God and the Church "has the right to celebrate Mass and a funeral."
"We hereby reiterate our rejection of all forms of anti-Semitism and racial hatred but also of hatred in all its forms," the society said.
One of the society's disgraced members is Bishop Richard Williamson, who made headlines in 2009 when he denied that any Jews were killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust.
Priebke espoused the same views. In a final interview released by his lawyer upon his death, Priebke denied the Nazis gassed Jews and accused the West of inventing such crimes to cover up atrocities committed by the Allies during World War II.
Once word spread that the society would celebrate the Mass, the mayor of Albano Laziale issued an ordinance trying to block the coffin from arriving but said he was overruled by the government prefect. Deputy Mayor Maurizio Sementelli said one of the reasons for the outrage was that one of the victims of the massacre was from Albano.
Priebke spent nearly 50 years as a fugitive before being extradited to Italy from Argentina in 1995 to stand trial for the 1944 massacre. He died in the Rome home of his lawyer, Giachini, where he had been serving his life term under house arrest.
Priebke admitted shooting two people and rounding up victims of the massacre, but insisted he was only following orders.
Giachini has said he merely wanted a Catholic funeral for his client, whom he said had confessed his sins and been absolved. But the pope's vicar for Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini refused him a church funeral. Albano is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) southeast of Rome and isn't part of Vallini's archdiocese.
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University, said Vallini's decision to refuse Priebke a church funeral was highly unusual, but was presumably done to take into account the outpouring of emotion Priebke's death has unleashed, particularly in Rome's Jewish community.
Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the roundup of Jews from Rome's ghetto for the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"For reasons of justice, for truth regarding the Holocaust, to honor the Jewish people and all that they suffered and for maintaining public peace, these are all good reasons for not having a public ceremony," said Gahl, an Opus Dei priest.
Details of Priebke's relationship with the Society of St. Pius X weren't known, but one Italian member, the Rev. Floriano Abrahamowicz, said he counted Priebke as a friend and would celebrate a memorial Mass in his honor this weekend.
Abrahamowicz in the past has supported Williamson and expressed doubts of his own about the extent of the Holocaust.
"I absolve sinners, and I don't consider a sin what he did," Abrahamowicz told Sky TG24, speaking of Priebke's role in the massacre. "It was simply the tremendous, horrible laws of war."
The decision to agree to officiate the funeral was likely to further distance the Society of St. Pius X from the Vatican.
Before he retired, Pope Benedict XVI had made bringing the society's members back into the fold a key priority of his pontificate. But talks between the society and Rome broke down in the final year of his papacy and Pope Francis has made clear he has no interest in restarting them.