John Hagee, an influential Texas televangelist who endorsed John McCain, apologized to Catholics Tuesday for his stinging criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and for having "emphasized the darkest chapters in the history of Catholic and Protestant relations with the Jews."
Hagee's support for McCain has drawn cries of outrage from some Catholic leaders who have called on McCain to reject Hagee's endorsement. The likely Republican nominee has said he does not agree with some of Hagee's past comments, but did not reject his support.
In a letter to William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, Hagee wrote: "Out of a desire to advance a greater unity among Catholics and evangelicals in promoting the common good, I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful."
Donohue, one of Hagee's sharpest critics, said he accepted the apology and planned to meet with Hagee Thursday in New York.
"I got what I wanted," Donohue said in an interview. "He's seen the light, as they like to say. So for me it's over."
The controversy had threatened to pursue McCain throughout the campaign, potentially hurting his standing with Catholic voters. A majority of Roman Catholics voted for President Bush in the past two presidential elections, critical votes in close elections.
The letter came after Hagee met Friday for lunch in a French restaurant in downtown Washington with 22 influential religious activists, virtually all of them Catholics.
Hagee has cited the Inquisition and the Crusades as evidence of anti-Semitism within the Catholic church and has suggested that Catholic anti-Semitism shaped Adolf Hitler's views of Jews.
"In my zeal to oppose anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its ugly forms, I have often emphasized the darkest chapters in the history of Catholics and Protestant relations with the Jews," Hagee wrote. "In the process, I may have contributed to the mistaken impression that the anti-Jewish violence of the Crusades and the Inquisition defines the Catholic Church. It most certainly does not."
Hagee has often made references to "the apostate church" and the "great whore," terms that Catholics say are slurs aimed at the Roman Catholic Church. In his letter, Hagee said he now better understood that the Book of Revelation's reference to the Catholic Church as "the apostate church" and the "great whore" are "a rhetorical device long employed in anti-Catholic literature and commentary."
He stressed that in his use, "neither of these phrases can be synonymous with the Catholic Church."
The remarkable 2 1/2-page letter was no doubt inspired by the political storm Hagee's endorsement caused. Hagee leads a San Antonio, Texas, megachurch with a congregation in the tens of thousands. He has an even wider television audience.
When he endorsed McCain in late February, Donohue and other Catholic leaders demanded that McCain repudiate him. The Democratic National Committee also weighed in, highlighting Hagee's remarks over the years. Some commentators even likened Hagee's affect on McCain to the controversy Democrat Barack Obama faced as a result of the views expressed by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
McCain initially embraced the endorsement, eager to reach out to religious voters by securing the support of a prominent Christian conservative. But he was soon forced to put some distance with Hagee.
"It's simply not accurate to say that because someone endorses me that I therefore embrace their views," McCain told reporters at a March news conference in Phoenix. Then in April, appearing on ABC's "This Week," McCain said: "Any comments that he made about the Catholic Church I strongly condemn, of course."
During the early primaries, McCain won strong support from Catholic voters. But Hagee threatened to become an issue heading into the general election.
Donohue said Hagee, by offering his apology now, may have defused a potential problem from the Arizona senator.
"Had this happened after Labor Day I think it would have been an insurmountable problem for McCain to reach out to Catholics," Donohue said. "Now, with this behind him, I think the raised eyebrows in the Catholic community will begin to normalize."
In a statement posted in the Catholic League's Web site, Donohue added: "What Hagee has done takes courage and quite frankly I never expected him to demonstrate such sensitivity to our concerns."