Some Things Cannot be Forgiven

The Catholic Church refuses to bury a convicted war criminal

Posted Oct 28, 2013

Don’t speak ill of the dead, a phrase first recorded in the 4th century, is tested by the death of Erich Priebke, a Nazi captain sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of 335 Italian civilians.

Priebke died in Rome at 100, a professed Catholic. But the Roman Catholic Church and municipal officials wanted no part of him. The mayor and church officials banned funerary celebrations. Priebke had lived in Argentina until 1995 when he was extradited to Italy, but Argentina wouldn’t take his body for burial either, saying that to do so would be an affront to human dignity.

Germany, the country of his birth, refused burial there, not wanting the gravesite to become a rallying point for Neo-Nazis.

So his body sat in a mortuary for days, a pariah in death as in life. Finally the schismatic Catholic group, The Society of St, Pius X, held a funeral service that resulted in a riot. Italian authorities interceded and seized the body, taking it to a military base and presumably burying it in a secret location.

Priebke’s death was shortly followed by an article by Dan Barry in the New York Times about Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran minister, and Sixtus O’Connor, a priest, both of whom attended to the spiritual needs of Nazis awaiting trial in Nuremberg prison after WWII.

Nuremberg prison held 15 Protestants and 6 Catholics, each accused of committing war crimes. Both had witnessed first-hand the horrors these men were accused of. O’Connor was with 11th Armored Division of the Third Army when it helped liberate the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp and conducted nearly 3,000 burial services for inmates there. Gerecke had visited Dachau concentration camp several times. So these clerics understood perhaps better than anyone what unspeakable acts these prisoners were accused of committing.

During the day they listened to testimony against the prisoners, at night they heard their confessions. Gerecke allowed one of Hitler’s leading henchman to take communion after he was convinced of the Nazi’s remorse. Gerecke received hate mail for his ministrations. He was accused of being a Nazi himself. O’Connor once explained to a friend, “you absolve them of their sins, but you don’t absolve them of their actions.”

So after nearly 70 years, the matter of absolution for sinful deeds is back in the news. Is today’s church right to refuse Priebke a religious burial because some acts cannot be forgiven by anyone or was it Gerecke and O’Connor who were correct when they believed that anyone can be redeemed through sincere remorse?

It appears that today’s Christian sensibilities have moved closer to the Jewish understanding of forgiveness and redemption, which is that only those who have suffered the harm can offer forgiveness and since the millions who died in the Holocaust cannot speak for themselves, then no one should on their behalf.