Williamson is one of four bishops excommunicated in 1988. (Kirsty Wigglesworth )
LONDON, March 12 -- Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledging "mistakes" that he "deeply regretted," issued an unusual letter Thursday attempting to quiet a storm of protest over his embrace of an excommunicated bishop who denied that Nazis killed Jews in gas chambers. The letter also appeared to be a broader attempt to answer recent criticism of his papacy.
The pope suggested that the controversy over Bishop Richard Williamson could have been avoided with a simple Internet search. Church critics have said that his handling of the issue exposed a bungling Vatican bureaucracy and that this and other recent errors threatened to disillusion some of his followers.
Benedict said his decision to welcome back to the church the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, to which the excommunicated bishop belongs, had been mishandled and "not clearly and adequately explained." The pope said he wanted to "clarify" that the breakaway group would not be allowed to rejoin the church unless it clearly accepted the modernizing Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, which include a repudiation of anti-Semitism.
"I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics, who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility," said Benedict, 81, in the letter addressed to Catholic bishops but clearly intended for the worldwide congregation of 1.1 billion.
Benedict reiterated that he had not known about Williamson's offending Holocaust statements before he lifted the excommunication on him and three other bishops in January. He said he was trying to heal a schism created when the bishops were excommunicated in 1988.
Williamson's inflammatory statements on the Holocaust had been available online, including on a YouTube video. That led to a public questioning of why someone at the Vatican had not done a simple Google search.
"I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news," the pope said.
In an interview before the letter was published, George Weigel, a papal biographer and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said the Vatican operation is "dysfunctional." Benedict "is not well served by the apparatus at the Vatican," Weigel added. "I think it is going to change. It has to change."
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, said that it was "insane" that the Georgetown basketball team had a bigger media operation than the Vatican.
Reese also said the pope suffered from a "serious problem of lack of consultation" with others that left him operating largely in "an intellectual bubble."
Reese said that one out of four Catholics born in the United States has left the church, which should be "working on how to make the Gospel intelligible to people in the 21st century." But the handling of the Society of St. Pius X, he said, makes it appear that the pope is consumed with a small group who seek a return to old Latin rites.
In his letter, Benedict responded to those who have questioned his reaching out to the excommunicated bishops. "Was this measure needed? Was it really a priority? Aren't other things perhaps more important?" the pope wrote. "Of course there are more important and urgent matters," he said, adding that "making God present in this world" was the "overriding priority."
Weigel called the letter a "reflection of the man's intelligence, decency and humility." He added that the pope's announcement that he was putting a commission in charge of dealing with the Society of St. Pius X under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that oversees church doctrine, was an "important signal of the pope's getting control of the Vatican bureaucracy."
Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, praised Benedict for his letter.
"The pope has found clear and unequivocal words regarding Bishop Williamson's Holocaust denial, and he deserves praise for admitting that mistakes were made within the Vatican in the handling of this affair," Lauder said.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger assumed the papacy at the age of 78 in April 2005, he was the oldest man to take over the Roman Catholic Church in 256 years. His tenure has been marked by crises and triumphs.
His trip to the United States last year was widely praised, but he was forced to apologize after a 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a 14th-century emperor calling the prophet Muhammad "evil" caused riots in the Muslim world.