At a solemn Good Friday service, Pope Benedict XVI's personal preacher said allegations that the pontiff covered up sex abuse cases by Catholic clergymen reminded him of the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism."
Within hours, a Vatican spokesman sought to distance the pope from his preacher's remarks after both Jews and a leading abuse victims group reacted sharply, criticizing the comparison with violence that culminated in the Holocaust to the accusations made against Benedict.
The Vatican has been on the defensive in recent days, saying the church has been singled out and collectively stereotyped for the problem of pedophilia, which it says is a society-wide issue.
Good Friday is a particularly delicate day in a decades-long effort by Jews and Catholics to overcome a legacy of mistrust. Particularly harmful to the relations was the long-held Catholic belief that Jews were collectively responsible for executing Christ. A landmark achievement of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s was a declaration stating the Jews should not be blamed for the crucifixion.
As the pope listened in a hushed St. Peter's Basilica, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa likened accusations against the pontiff and the Catholic church in sex abuse scandals in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere to "collective violence" suffered by the Jews.
Benedict, 82, looked weary as he sat near the central altar at the early evening prayer service before a candlelit Way of the Cross procession near the Colosseum that commemorates Christ's suffering and death.
Cantalamessa, in his reflections for the pope on the Catholic church's most solemn day, said he was inspired by a letter from an unidentified Jewish friend who was upset by the "attacks" against Benedict.
Jews "know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms," said Cantalamessa, a Franciscan priest.
Quoting from the letter, Cantalamessa said his Jewish friend was following "with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful of the whole world."
"The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," he said, quoting from the letter.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, later contacted The Associated Press and said Cantalamessa wasn't speaking as a Vatican official. He said Cantalamessa's homily did not represent an official church position, saying such parallelism can lead to misunderstandings.
Benedict didn't speak after the homily but chanted prayers in a tired voice. He leaned up to remove a red cloth covering a tall crucifix, which was passed to him by an aide. He took off his shoes, knelt and prayed before the cross.
Victims say Benedict -- both as a former archbishop of Munich and later as a Vatican cardinal directing the Holy See's policy on handling abuse cases -- was part of a culture of cover-up and confidentiality basically devised to protect church hierarchy.
Cantalamessa's likening the accusations to the Holocaust rankled U.S. Jewish leaders.
"Shame on Father Cantalamessa," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, in a statement. "The Vatican is entitled to defend itself, but the comparison with anti-Semitic persecution is offensive and unsustainable. We are sorely disappointed."
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who said he recently had "cordial" talks at the Vatican with church and other Jewish leaders as part of efforts on both sides to improve Catholic-Jewish relations, sounded dismayed.
"It's an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault," said Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee.
German Jewish leader Stephan Kramer described Cantalamessa's remarks as unheard-of "insolence."
"It is repulsive, obscene and most of all offensive toward all abuse victims as well as to all the victims of the Holocaust," said Kramer, general secretary of Germany's Central Council of Jews, in an interview with the AP in Berlin.
Painful memories of the strained relations between the two religions were raised earlier in Benedict's papacy, when he favored a revival of the pre-Vatican Council version of the Tridentine Mass, which includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews.
Cantalamessa in his sermon said there was no need to dwell on the scandals. He referred to the sexual abuse of children by clergy, saying "unfortunately, not a few elements of the clergy are stained" by the violence. Still, he said, "there is sufficient talk outside of here."
A vocal U.S.-based victims lobby, SNAP, reacted scathingly to the sermon.
"It's heartbreaking to see yet another smart, high-ranking Vatican official making such callous remarks that insult both abuse victims and Jewish people," said David Clohessy of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's morally wrong to equate actual physical violence and hatred against a large group of innocent people with mere public scrutiny of a small group of complicit officials."
"The Catholic hierarchy has engaged in and still engages in widely documented, self-serving and ongoing cover-ups of devastating clergy sex crimes. That's why church records are being disclosed, predator priests are being exposed and Catholic officials feel besieged."
While Cantalamessa delivered his ringing defense of the pontiff, the church in Benedict's native Germany made the unusually frank admission that it failed to help victims of clerical abuse because it wanted to protect its reputation.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German bishops' conference, said clerics neglected helping victims because of a "wrongly intended desire to protect the church's reputation."
Associated Press writers Eric Gorski in Denver and Victor L. Simpson in Rome contributed to this story.