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Jewish groups around the world have reacted with shock after Pope Benedict's personal preacher compared attacks on the Catholic Church and pope over a sexual abuse scandal to "collective violence" against Jews.

"I am absolutely totally astounded by this. This is folly," said Amos Luzzatto, a former president of Italy's Jewish communities.

Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, who welcomed the pope in the capital's synagogue last January said: "This is really in bad taste."

The pope's personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in a Friday sermon in St Peter's Basilica, said attacks on the Catholic Church and the pope over a sexual abuse scandal were comparable to "collective violence" against Jews.

Jewish leaders around the world described the sermon as repugnant, obscene and offensive, particularly, as Di Segni noted, it came on the day that for centuries Christians prayed for the conversion of the Jews, who were held collectively responsible for Jesus' death.

"How can you compare the collective guilt assigned to the Jews which caused the deaths of tens of millions of innocent people to perpetrators who abuse their faith and their calling by sexually abusing children?" said Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the international Jewish rights group.

Cantalamessa, speaking with the pope sitting nearby, said Jews throughout history had been the victims of "collective violence" and drew comparisons between Jewish suffering and attacks on the Church.

"The use of stereotypes, the shifting of personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," Cantalamessa quoted from the letter.

A Vatican spokesman said the comparison "is absolutely not the line of the Vatican and of the Catholic Church."

This week's celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday have been clouded by accusations the Church in several countries mishandled and covered up episodes of sexual abuse of children by priests, some dating back decades.

Shaken by the crisis, the Vatican has accused the media of an "ignoble" attempt to smear the pope. Some reports have accused him of negligence in handling abuse cases in previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany and in Rome.

Victims of sexual abuse also criticized Cantalamessa.

"This ridiculous attempt to hide the crimes of the [Church] hierarchy inside of Jewish suffering shows just how far this Pope seems willing to go to stop the truth from emerging," said Peter Isely, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from 1950 to 1974. The New York Times reported the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, were warned about Murphy but he was not defrocked.

The spiritual head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Rowan Williams, said on Saturday the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost all its credibility over its response to the sex abuse scandals after an apology by the pope abuse in Ireland that disappointed victims.