updated 1/29/2009 4:41:27 PM ET 2009-01-29T21:41:27

A priest in an ultraconservative society recently rehabilitated by Pope Benedict XVI has defended a bishop in his group and joined him in expressing doubts about the Holocaust.

While making more cautious remarks than Bishop Richard Williamson, the Rev. Floriano Abrahamowicz echoed, in an interview published Thursday by an Italian daily, the prelate's doubts that Jews were gassed during World War II.

"I know gas chambers existed at least to disinfect, I can't say if anybody was killed in them or not," Abrahamowicz told "La Tribuna di Treviso," a newspaper in northern Italy.

Contacted by phone in Treviso, Abrahamowicz said the report of his interview was accurate, but declined to comment on his remarks.

Excommunication lifted
Benedict lifted Williamson's excommunication and those of three other members of the Society of St. Pius X last week as part of his efforts to bring back into the Church the group, which opposes many of the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Williamson's superiors at the society have distanced themselves from his comments.

Asked for comment about Abrahamowicz' remarks, a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, noted that Benedict had warned Wednesday against any denial of the full horror of the Nazi genocide and had expressed his unquestioned solidarity with Jews.

The spokesman also reiterated the Holy See's position that rehabilitating Williamson by no means implies that the Vatican shares his views.

On Thursday, the Vatican cardinal in charge of negotiating with the society was quoted as saying that no one at the Vatican knew about Williamson's views until after the decree lifting excommunication had been signed.

"We absolutely didn't know anything about this Williamson, I really think that no one was aware of it," Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos said in an interview published in Corriere della Sera.

Asked why the Vatican went ahead with the public announcement of the rehabilitation after Williamson's views were publicized, he said the decree was already in the hands of the society.

"We did what we had to do," the cardinal was quoted as saying.

Jews angered
Jewish groups denounced Benedict for embracing Williamson, who denied during an interview broadcast last week on Swedish state TV that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The bishop said only about 200,000 or 300,000 were killed.

In Thursday's interview, Abrahamowicz defended the bishop, saying Williamson had not denied the Holocaust but had only questioned the "technical aspect" of the gas chambers.

The priest, who heads the society in northeast Italy, said in the interview he did not doubt that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but then added that the figure may have been "exaggerated."

He compared the Holocaust to the Allied bombing of German cities in World War II and the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Abrahamowicz also referred to Jews as being "the people of God who then became the God-killing people" — a remark that contradicts the Vatican II teaching that Jews as a people cannot be held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Williamson and three other bishops were excommunicated 20 years ago after they were consecrated by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre without papal consent — a move the Vatican at the time called an act of schism.

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