VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict has written an "anguished" letter to Church leaders admitting the case of a Holocaust-denying bishop was mishandled and warning the Church risked "devouring itself" with internal squabbles.
In the letter addressed to the world's bishops, which the Vatican will release on Thursday, the pope also says he was pained by Catholics' criticism of him and that the Vatican could have foreseen problems if it had used the Internet more.
It is extremely rare in Church history for a pope to have to explain his actions to his bishops after the fact and to acknowledge that things went wrong.
"The letter is very personal, very anguished, very pained but very honest," said an Italian bishop who received it and discussed it on the condition that he remain anonymous.
The pope says the affair unleashed a storm of "vehemence" and hurt him deeply, particularly because much of the criticism came from Catholics.
On January 24, Benedict lifted the excommunication of Richard Williamson and three other bishops to try to heal a 20-year-old schism that began when they were thrown out of the Church for being ordained without the permission of Pope John Paul II.
Williamson said in an interview broadcast several days earlier that he believed there were no gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by most historians.
Williamson's comments and the pope's decision to lift the excommunication caused a deep rift in Catholic-Jewish relations. The decision was condemned by Holocaust survivors, some Catholics, Israel's Chief Rabbinate, world Jewish leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
CHURCH MUST USE INTERNET
The Vatican said at the time it did not know that Williamson was a Holocaust denier but critics said a simple Internet search would have found he had made such statements.
"Doesn't the Vatican know about Google?" one prominent Catholic critic said at the time.
In the letter, the pope says he was told after the crisis exploded that better use of the Internet would have revealed some of the problems. He says he "draws the lesson" and adds that in the future the Vatican must "pay more attention to this source of information."
The pope says he could not have foreseen that the Williamson affair would overshadow his intention of bringing unity back to the Church by lifting the excommunications of the bishops who belong to the Society of St Pius X.
He also says the Vatican did not sufficiently explain what it was trying to do by lifting the excommunications. At the time, several senior Vatican officials complained publicly that he had kept them out of the loop.
The pope also thanks those Jews who helped restore a climate of inter-religious trust.
The pope says he reflected deeply on the controversy and uses a quote from the Bible in which St Paul warns that the Church risks "devouring" itself through internal bickering.
He is both charitable and stern with the SSPX, saying that while his intention was to bring good people back into the fold, some of its members act in an "arrogant" way and make comments discordant with Church teaching.
The Vatican says before the SSPX can be fully readmitted into the Church, it must accept the teachings of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council which urged respect for other religions.
Williamson, a Briton, has so far not met the Vatican's demands that he recant.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)