Image: Bishop Williamson
Kirsty Wigglesworth  /  AP
Bishop Richard Williamson, second from left in foreground, is escorted from London's Heathrow Airport by police after arriving on a flight from Argentina on Wednesday.
updated 2/26/2009 6:24:23 PM ET 2009-02-26T23:24:23

A British bishop whose denial of the Holocaust embroiled Pope Benedict XVI in controversy has apologized for his remarks, a Catholic news agency said Thursday.

Bishop Richard Williamson, with the conservative Society of St. Pius X, had faced worldwide criticism over a television interview in which he said no Jews were gassed during the Holocaust.

While Williamson apologized in a statement Thursday to all those who took offense and for the distress he caused, the bishop did not specifically say that his comments were erroneous, or that he no longer believed them.

"If I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them," Williamson was quoted as saying in a statement carried by the Zenit Catholic news agency.

Last month, the pope sought to help heal a rift with ultra-traditionalists by lifting a 20-year-old excommunication decree imposed on Williamson and three other bishops who had been consecrated without Vatican approval.

The move immediately caused an uproar among Jewish groups. Benedict later condemned Williamson's remarks and spoke out against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

"Observing these consequences I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks," Williamson added, according to Zenit.

"On Swedish television I gave only the opinion (..."I believe"..."I believe"...) of a non-historian, an opinion formed 20 years ago on the basis of evidence then available, and rarely expressed in public since.

"However, the events of recent weeks and the advice of senior members of the Society of St. Pius X have persuaded me of my responsibility for much distress caused. To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said, before God I apologize."

It was not clear if the apology would satisfy the Vatican, which had demanded that he recant before being admitted to the church as a clergyman, or Jewish groups, which had expressed outrage.

The Vatican had no comment on the statement, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

"The millions of Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust and the survivors who were persecuted are not waiting for his apology," said Iris Rosenberg, spokeswoman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. "If he is looking to repent, he needs to admit that he was wrong in denying the truth. This is much more important to the people he claims to lead."

Expelled from Argentina
In the interview broadcast Jan. 21 on Swedish state TV, Williamson said historical evidence indicates there were no Nazi gas chambers and that a maximum of 300,000 people died in concentration camps in the Holocaust.

Most historians believe about 6 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Zenit said on its Web site that the statement was published upon Williamson's return to London on Wednesday. The bishop was expelled from Argentina, where he had been based, following the controversy.

Williamson and three other traditionalist bishops were excommunicated in 1988 after being consecrated without papal consent by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Lefebvre founded the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X in 1969, opposed to the Vatican II reforms, including its outreach to Jews.

The society had already distanced itself from Williamson's views.

In earlier comments, Williamson had apologized to Benedict for having stirred the controversy but did not recant. Instead, he said he would correct himself if he were satisfied by the evidence, but insisted in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that examining it "will take time."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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