In January 2009 it emerged that Pope Benedict had lifted the excommunication of a British bishop and known Holocaust denier.
The pope ordered Williamson to recant his views before the excommunication was lifted, but the issue provoked international outrage and threatened a rift in Jewish-Catholic relations.
The bishop, part of an extreme-traditionalist sect, had said: "I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler".
He said that at most 300,000 Jews died in Nazi camps and that there were no gas chambers and on another occasion he claimed that the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was not a forgery.
The Vatican later said it had been done as part of an effort to resolve a split with ultra-traditionalist wing of the church and that it had been unaware of his views. The pope then said in a letter that “consulting the information available on the internet” would have been helpful.
Williamson, the head of an Argentinean Roman Catholic seminary, was then removed from his post and given ten days to leave the South American country. When he returned to Britain, Catholic representatives here said he did not have permission to officiate in Catholic churches in Britain and distanced themselves from him.
What the JC said: The past few years have not been easy for Jewish-Catholic relations… relations blazed into summer with the papacy of John Paul II. For him, Judaism was an elder brother, the Jewish people engaged in a covenantal relationship with God. But recent events make one fear that summer is over, even that a winter chill has descended. The chill factor was most evident with the decision to revoke the excommunication ban on four “Lefebvrist” bishops, one of them being Richard Williamson. It is reassuring to be told that Pope Benedict did not know of Williamson’s track record of antisemitism, and to know that other Church leaders were bold in their criticism of the move…But no Catholic could blame Jewish people for being distressed by the move.
See more from the JC archives here.