Catholic sect holds funeral rites for Nazi war criminal
Former SS officer Erich Priebke died October 11. His burial is a source of controversy in Rome.
October 15th, 2013
02:07 PM ET

Catholic sect holds funeral rites for Nazi war criminal

By Daniel Burke and Hada Messia, CNN

ROME (CNN) - The Italian branch of a Catholic sect with a history of anti-Semitism held funeral rites on Tuesday for a convicted Nazi war criminal, despite protests from Jewish groups and the local mayor.

Crowds packed the streets outside San Pio X Church in Albano, a small town south of Rome, chanting "Executioner!" and kicking the hearse carrying Erich Priebke's body as entered the church compound on Tuesday.

A funeral Mass was celebrated for Priebke but his casket was kept outside, according to a priest from the church who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

The absolution rite, which includes a prayer for clemency for the deceased, was also given outside the church, in the courtyard inside San Pio X's compound, the priest said.

Priebke's body is now being held in a military airport outside Rome.

The church funeral plans for Priebke sparked an outcry in the United States.

"Erich Priebke was a monster," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

"He does not deserve the dignity and respect of a proper church burial. His body should be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea, without further ceremony.”

Priebke, a former SS captain sentenced to life in prison for his role in an Italian massacre in 1944, died on Friday.

Priebke was convicted by Italian court in 1998 for helping organize the execution of 335 men and boys in retaliation for attacks on German troops. The former Nazi was unrepentant, denying the Holocaust in his final statement, according to the Associated Press.

After World War II, Priebke escaped to Argentina, where he lived for nearly 50 years. He had planned to be buried near his late wife there, according to his lawyer, Paolo Giachini. But Argentina's foreign minister said it would not accept the remains.

MORE: Nazi war criminal Priebke, dubbed the 'butcher,' dies at 100

Burying Priebke in Rome has proved nearly as difficult.

The Diocese of Rome said in a statement that Priebke's lawyer was asked to hold a "small, private" funeral in the Nazi war criminal's home rather than in a church.

"The prayer for the deceased was not denied," the diocese said in a statement, "but rather a different manner for the ceremony was decided." Pope Francis is the titular head of the Rome diocese but has little involvement in its daily affairs.

Priebke's lawyer rejected that proposition, according to the diocese.

Instead, the conservative Society of St. Pius X stepped in, agreeing on Tuesday to hold a funeral Mass in their church for the former Nazi. The society has no official status within the Catholic Church.

The Italian chapter acknowledged in a statement Tuesday that Priebke was "controversial" but said he had already been convicted by Italian courts and has the right to a Christian funeral.

"A Christian who has been baptized and who has received the sacraments of the Confession and the Eucharist, regardless of what have been his crimes and sins, as he dies reconciling with God and with the Church has the right to have a Holy Mass celebrated at his funeral," the group said in a statement.

The society also said that it "reaffirms our repudiation to any form of anti-semitism and racial hatred."

But the Society of St. Pius X, whose leaders were once excommunicated from the Catholic Church for ordaining bishops without Vatican approval, has a long history of controversial statements about Jews.

Its founder, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, sharply disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church's softened stance toward other faiths, including Judaism, after the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65. It also objected to other modernizing reforms such as celebrating the Mass in local languages.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Society of St. Pius X is "mired in anti-Semitism."

“The Society of St. Pius X never fails fail to shock," Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said Tuesday. "First, they denied the Holocaust, and now they’re denying the acts of a perpetrator.”

"Jews are described in SSPX documents as being cursed by God for the sin of deicide" (killing Jesus), the ADL says in an online report.

"Jews are accused of being in control of world financial and cultural institutions and of plotting to create a 'world empire' or obtain 'world dominion,'" the ADL report continues.

Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church tried to reconcile with the ultra-conservative society, lifting the excommunication of several bishops and allowing for wider celebration of the Mass in Latin, a favored practice of SSPX.

One of those bishops, Richard Williamson, was later found to have denied elements of the Holocaust, including its death toll of 6 million Jews.

Williamson was convicted of Holocaust denial in a German court and expelled from the society in 2012.

MORE: Holocaust-denying bishop loses court battle

Former Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2009 that the Society of St. Pius X "does not have canonical status in the Catholic church" because of doctrinal, not disciplinary reasons.

It doesn't look like the breach will close any time soon.

The Bishop Bernard Fellay, the society's Swiss-born leader, reportedly said on Saturday in Kansas City, "The situation of the church is a real disaster, and the present Pope is making it 10,000 times worse.”

- CNN Belief Blog Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Death • Italy • Judaism • Pope Benedict XVI • Pope Francis • Vatican

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.