A British Catholic priest who has been excommunicated twice by different popes is allegedly harbouring clergy accused of sexual abuse in his renegade religious order.
Richard Williamson, who was illicitly ordained as a bishop in 1988 by an ultra-conservative group, the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), and later convicted of Holocaust denial by a German court, is now head of the “SSPX Resistance”, based in Broadstairs, Kent.
Two Catholic SSPX priests who have been accused of sexual abuse have found a refuge in Williamson’s breakaway movement, according to an investigative documentary to be aired on Swedish television on Wednesday.
The Golden Jail, made by Ali Fegan, a Swedish journalist whose interview with Williamson about his Holocaust denial was broadcast in 2009, claims that the SSPX protected priests and failed to report claims of abuse to the police or civil authorities. Internal canonical trials of two men – one French, one English – were allegedly conducted with Vatican approval.
The English priest, referred to as Father S, left the SSPX before the conclusion of the trial to join the SSPX Resistance in 2014, going to live in Broadstairs. He declined to speak to the documentary team.
The French priest, Father P, was found guilty and banned from working with children. He joined the SSPX Resistance, and was filmed celebrating mass at a church in Bordeaux last November. He also refused to discuss allegations against him with the TV journalists.
Williamson’s movement, also known as Respice Stellam, describes itself as “a group of traditional Catholics who wish to practise their faith without compromise to liberalism or modernism”. It says reforms over recent decades have “contributed and are still contributing to the destruction of the church, to the ruin of the priesthood, to the abolition of the sacrifice of the mass and of the sacraments, to the disappearance of religious life.”
More than 100 former SSPX priests around the world have joined the renegade order, according to the documentary. Its headquarters is in a detached property in Broadstairs, named Regina Martyrum House, with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the front garden.
Members of the UK branch of SSPX Resistance celebrate mass each Sunday in a hired room in Earlsfield public library in south London, which recently put on a display of books for Holocaust Memorial Day. A spokesperson for GLL, which manages the library, said: “The hall booking is with the Stella Maris Mass Fund – which is a registered charity.” The booking had been running since January 2015 with no problems reported, the spokesperson said.
Mass is also celebrated by the group in Bingley, West Yorkshire, and Liverpool.
The SSPX confirmed that Father S and Father P were accused of sexual abuse when priests in the order, that canonical trials were held, and that both men later joined the SSPX Resistance.
In the case of Father S, an allegation of sexual abuse was reported to civil authorities in France where he was based at the time, the order said. The SSPX moved Father S to Bristol, where he had therapy for several years. The civil authorities closed the case without further action, according to SSPX. His canonical trial was still in process when the priest left the order to join Williamson’s group.
Father P was found guilty and forbidden to work with children, although permitted to celebrate mass. The families of his alleged victims said they did not wish a complaint to be made to the civil authorities.
“The SSPX, under no legal obligation to report at that time, chose to respect the wishes of these parents,” said the SSPX statement. An alleged victim did make a complaint 25 years later to the police, who are currently investigating, it said, adding: “A number of our priests are cooperating.”
Williamson, who did not respond to Fegan’s or the Guardian’s requests for comment on the allegations regarding the two priests, has a turbulent history in the Catholic church.
The son of an Anglican vicar, he was educated at Winchester College and Cambridge, and later converted to Catholicism. He joined the SSPX, which was highly critical of what it saw as a moral and theological crisis in the church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which sought to make Catholicism more relevant to the modern world.
In 1988, Williamson was one of four SSPX priests ordained as bishops by the SSPX founder, archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, against the orders of Pope John Paul II. All four were instantly excommunicated.
But in January 2009, the excommunication was reversed by Pope Benedict XVI in an attempt at reconciliation with the order. Three days earlier, in a filmed interview with Fegan, Williamson insisted that no Jews were killed in Nazi gas chambers. The Vatican said it had not known of Williamson’s Holocaust denial when it lifted the excommunication.
The move came under fire from Jewish groups and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. In February 2009, a German court fined Williamson €12,000 after convicting him of Holocaust denial. In 2014 the conviction was upheld on appeal but the fine reduced to €1,600.
The Vatican’s rapprochement with SSPX has continued under Pope Francis, who this week paved the way for recognition of marriages conducted by the order’s priests.
In 2012, Williamson was expelled from SSPX, allegedly for failing to show respect and obedience. He immediately called for a Catholic “resistance”.
Two years ago, Williamson ordained without papal approval another former SSPX priest, Jean-Michel Faure, as a bishop at a ceremony in Brazil. Both Williamson and Faure were excommunicated by the Vatican.
In an email to his supporters around the time of the illicit ordination, Williamson said the “nightingale’s nest” of the Catholic church had been occupied by “modernist cuckoos”.
“Wherever the remainder of the true nightingales are visibly gathered, in whatever makeshift nest, they are in the church, they are the true visible church, and their beautiful song testifies to anyone who has ears to hear that the cuckoos are nothing but cuckoos who have stolen the catholic nest which they presently occupy,” he wrote.