ROME One of Italy's best-known priests has apologised for accusing a liberal Jewish lobby of trying to weaken the Roman Catholic Church, saying he meant to refer to a a Masonic lobby instead.
The gaffe is the latest from 82-year-old Pietro Gelmini, a priest known for his drug rehabilitation centres and powerful political allies in Rome, after he confirmed last week that he was being investigated for sexually abusing young men.
Defending himself against the charges, Gelmini was quoted by Italian newspapers on Sunday as saying that a "radical-chic Jewish lobby is stretching out to weaken the whole Church, starting with the American Church".
But Gelmini retracted the comment when it sparked a maelstrom of criticism from politicians and Jewish leaders for smacking of anti-Semitism and ancient prejudices that the Church has fought to root out.
"If I said that then it just slipped out, because I intended to say Masonic radical-chic," Gelmini told Italian radio in comments splashed across Italian newspapers on Monday.
"I ask for forgiveness from the Jews because I have a lot of respect and consideration for them."
Gelmini founded his "Comunita Incontro" community, which helps drug addicts and the homeless, in 1963. The group now has nearly 200 centres in Italy and branches in Bolivia and Thailand.
He is also known for his close ties to centre-right politicians. In 2005, then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi flew to the priest's 80th birthday party to deliver a speech.
Politicians rushed to defend Gelmini against the accusations of sexual abuse last week, but even some of his staunchest supporters appeared embarrassed by the reference to a Jewish lobby.
The newspaper Corriere della Sera said on Monday that centre-right lawmaker Maurizio Gasparri had received a barrage of text messages when the comment was published, and immediately called the priest to tell him to sort the matter out.
"It was a gaffe, with a capital G," the newspaper quoted right-wing National Alliance spokesman Andrea Ronchi as saying.