A GROUP of controversial, ultra-conservative Catholic bishops has been forced to write to the Pope and apologise for their colleague, Monsignor Richard Williamson, over his public denial of the Holocaust.
The Lefebvrian bishops, who form part of the traditionalist Fraternita San Pio, have had their excommunication rescinded by the Pope in a bid to mend a 20-year schism within the Catholic Church.
In a letter published overnight by the Holy See, the bishops not only seek forgiveness for Monsignor Williamson's denial of the gas chambers and the Jewish genocide - broadcast on Swedish TV last week - but imply that he has been gagged.
"We seek forgiveness of the pontiff and all men of goodwill for the consequences of such a statement. While we recognise the inopportune nature of these comments, we must restate our sadness that they have also discredited our mission," wrote Monsignor Bernard Fellay, head of the Fraternita.
"It is with great pain that we accept the damage that such statements may have made to our mission. The words of Monsignor Williamson do not reflect the positions taken by our fraternity."
Monsignor Williamson is a Cambridge graduate who has long expressed the view that Jews are "enemies of Christ".
Italy's Repubblica newspaper quoted Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, saying that the bishop's use of the word "inopportune" underplayed the enormity of the Shoah, or Holocaust.
"It is not good enough to simply shut down the comments of one denier. I want to know from the Lefebvrians exactly what the Vatican Council's decrees are regarding Jewish people," he said.
On his regular blog, Dinoscopus, Monsignor Williamson crowed about the group's reintegration into the Catholic Church but made no explicit reference to his denials of the Holocaust. Rather, he referred to a "media uproar", which he claimed was designed to halt the Pope's decision to rescind the Lefebvrians excommunication.
An arch conservative in matters of gender and dress, Monsignor Williamson argues that women should not wear trousers or shorts and has also aired conspiracy theories on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the destruction of the Twin Towers. He insists he is not anti-Semitic but merely a follower of the words of the New Testament.
The crisis in the church surfaced 10 years ago when the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of Pope John Paul II. The result was their self-imposed excommunication, later made formal by a Vatican decree.
The Fraternita, which claims about a million supporters, categorically rejects the validity of any other religions and conducts Mass solely in Latin.
The Pope's decision to return it to the fold is underpinned by the desire to shore up the conservative and traditionalist ranks inside the Catholic Church.
The move holds particular significance at a time when it has become clear that any hope of a union with the Anglican communion is unlikely.
However, Monsignor Williamson's statements on the Holocaust and his endorsement of anti-Semitic forgeries, including the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion , have sparked a backlash in Europe since the Pope's decision, reported to have been made without seeking advice, became public over the weekend.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.