All Things Considered, February 25, 2009
Bishop Richard Williamson was escorted out of Heathrow airport Feb. 25 after arriving on a flight from Argentina. Argentina's government ordered the Catholic bishop to leave the country or face expulsion, citing his failure to declare a job change as required by immigration law — as well as his denials of the Holocaust. AP
Until last month, Bishop Richard Williamson was barely known outside the ultra-conservative world of the Society of St. Pius X. That was before Pope Benedict lifted his excommunication.
It then emerged that Williamson is an unrepentant Holocaust denier.
His rehabilitation has seriously damaged Jewish-Catholic relations and caused anguish within the church.
The smoking gun was Williamson's interview on Swedish TV just days before his excommunication was lifted. It's now been viewed on YouTube more than 200,000 times.
"The historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler," Williamson said in the interview.
An embarrassed Vatican claimed the pope had no knowledge of the bishop's views. Yet, Williamson's anti-semitism and dismissal of the Holocaust date back at least to the 1980s when he was rector of a seminary in Ridgefield, Conn. To his students, he was rigid and authoritarian.
"When he said jump, you said how far, so to speak," says Rev. John Rizzo, who was a student at the Ridgefield seminary in 1983.
Reached by phone in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he is an assistant priest at the cathedral, Rev. Rizzo says he remembers Williamson expressing unusual views about the Holocaust.
"He said it was a pack of lies, that we shouldn't fall victim to a type of public sympathy toward the Jews," Rizzo says. "He would also tease in regard to my sizable nose, 'Gee, Rizzo, are you a Jew? I want to see a baptismal certificate,' things like that he would say. [There was] this other seminarian by the name of Dan Oppenheimer, and he would say to him, 'Oppenheimer, I don't like your name, there is a gas chamber waiting for you down at the lake,' horrible things like that that, he would say."
Richard Williamson was born to Anglican parents in 1940. He became Catholic and studied to be a priest with the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded in opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. These reforms included dialogue with the Jewish community following the abolition of the accusation that Jews were responsible for Christ's death.
The group's bishops were excommunicated as schismatic.
Williamson, who champions the anti-semitic forgery the protocols of the Elders of Zion, has called Jews the enemies of Christ, who he claims, together with Freemasons, have contributed to the corruption of the Catholic Church.
Rev. Rizzo says Williamson expressed such opinions and ultra-orthodox views during spiritual conferences held on Thursday afternoons.
"He was always insisting that women should not wear pants, because that would be an occasion of sin, that women when married should be subjected to their husbands to such a degree — I'll never forget this — that if the wife misbehaves the husband should be willing to beat her," he says.
The 48-year-old priest says Williamson had bad things to say even about a 20th century icon of Catholic charity.
"He would criticize Mother Teresa for false facade of charity, saying, 'oh yes, she may take care of the poor, but she is still a modernist, we shouldn't fall for her liberal tendencies,'" Rizzo says.
Rev. Rizzo also recalls that when Williamson taught sacred scriptures, he would often espouse conspiracy theories and attack the American government —a theme he would pick up in a 2007 lecture in London where he described the United States as a police state.
"And I hope none of you believe that 9/11 is what it was presented to be," Williamson said at the time. "Of course two towers came down, but it was absolutely for certain not two airplanes which brought down those two towers, they were professionally demolished by a series of demolition charges from top to bottom of the towers."
When the Williamson affair exploded, he was relieved of his post as rector of a seminary in Argentina. The pope ordered him to recant publicly, but Williamson said he would do so only after re-examining the historical evidence.
On Tuesday, four days after Argentina ordered his expulsion on the grounds that his views deeply offend Argentine society, Williamson left for Britain, the land of his birth.