August 31, 2001
Local Catholics aid Nazi
East Van parish raises money to help Michael Seifert.
PAT JOHNSON REPORTER
An East Vancouver Catholic church gave cash and helped raise funds
to aid a convicted Nazi war criminal who brutally tortured and murdered
Jews at a German concentration camp in Italy during the Second World
But, when questiones by the Bulletin, Father Benno Burghardt,
priest at the German-language Holy Family parish in East Vancouver,
would neither confirm nor deny that he called from the pulpit for
parishioners to donate money for a so-called "compassion fund"
in the aftermath of Michael Seifert's conviction by an Italian court
of being a brutal, emotionless torturer and killer.
"I'm not saying that I didn't. I don't say that I did,"
said Burghardt. "Were you there when I asked for it?"
Though the priest would not say whether he spoke on the issue
from the pulpit, he acknowledged to the Bulletin that his
parish is raising funds for a compassion fund, but stated that it
is not for Seifert but, rather, for his wife, on the assumption
that Seifert's legal expenses will cause hardship to the family.
"The difference is, the wife always suffers when something
happens to the husband," he said.
Seifert is fighting extradition, hoping to avoid sentencing in
Italy. Reports in the Vancouver Sun indicate that
eyewitnesses who testified at Seifert's trial in absentia said that
he had brutally tortured and murdered inmates. According to the
court's verdict, Seifert's actions were almost beyond human belief.
Burghardt refused to comment on the testimony, saying he doesn't
read the Sun and cannot be expected to have an opinion on
something that happened 50 years ago.
"It's a long time ago and most of us don't even know what
it's all about," said the priest. "I'm a pastor here.
I don't concern myself with what happened 50 years ago. If I had
been there, then it would be a different story. Don't drag me into
something that happened so long ago. Let it just play out the way
it is. What am I supposed to do?"
When confronted with a litany of the atrocities that eyewitnesses
attributed to Seifert, the priest refused to listen."I know
what he's accused of. Please don't repeat the story to me,"
he said. Pressed to comment on whether he had any concerns about
pastoring to a convicted war criminal, he said no.
"I have no concern because I wasn't there," said Burghardt.
"I only know that he's a good parishioner since I've known
A parishioner who asked that her name not be used in the media
said Burghardt had, in fact, called for donations during mass. She
articularly incensed by the priest's action because her father survived
a concentration camp. Though the parishioner is Catholic, her paternal
grandmother was Jewish. The grandmother died before the Second World
War, but all four of her sisters perished at Auschwitz.
The parishioner said she confronted the priest afterward and condemned
him for the action, accusing him of collecting money for a murderer.
When the priest would not back down, the woman said, she approached
Archbishop Adam Exner, the senior Catholic official in the Vancouver
Paul Schratz, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, said Holy Family
parish gave $2,000 to Seifert's wife and asked congregants to assist
"What happened was, [Burghardt] was trying to make a small
amount of parish money available to Mrs. Seifert. Then he also solicited
some assistance for the family.... My understanding is that the
money that was solicited from parishioners was not administered
by the parish, but the parish did contribute."
Schratz, who discussed the matter with Archbishop Adam Exner, said
the intention was to help a family in need. "It was, apparently,
to help the spouse during the financial crisis she was going to
anticipate. From [Burghardt's] perspective, I guess, they were members
of the parish and the family was in need."
When church officials discovered what was going on, Schratz said,
they put the brakes on.
"Our staff and officials did express concern to father last
year when this was brought to their attention and the archdiocese
was assured that this amount of money had been donated. There was
direction given by the archdiocese that no more be given."
There was no request that the $2,000 that had already been donated
Schratz was careful not to criticize the donation, but acknowledged
that it caused some consternation among senior officials in the
"There was obviously concern about this sort of approach,"
Nisson Goldman, a lawyer who is also chair of Canadian Jewish Congress,
Pacific Region, was diplomatic but critical of the actions of the
priest. He condemned the so-called compassion fund.
"That kind of compassion is misplaced," he said. "I
think the time to show compassion is after justice has been done."
He said Seifert has been convicted by an Italian court and must
face justice for what he has done. If there is compassion to be
expressed, it should be done so by the Italian court taking into
consideration Seifert's age and health, he said. Goldman said Burghardt's
ignorance of events more than 50 years ago is not an excuse for
"The fact that he doesn't know means that, I think, he should
probably try to acquaint himself," said Goldman. "I think
he has a responsibility to understand history as well as anybody
else does, especially recent history."
If the legal bills for Seifert's battle against extradition are
too high for him to pay himself, he should apply for legal aid,
said Goldman, adding that Canadian courts are not being asked to
determine whether Seifert is guilty or innocent.
"A court has found him guilty and we're talking about extradition....
What's being determined by the courts is whether he should be sent
to Italy to face his accusers," Goldman stated.
The actions of one Vancouver priest may have wide-ranging detrimental
effects, Goldman warned. Pope John Paul II has made strenuous efforts
toheal some ancient and recent wounds between Catholics and Jews.
"This pope has been a remarkable man and I think you can say
that his reaching out to Jewish people has been a great milestone
in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,"
he said. Burghardt's efforts, however well-intentioned, threaten
to cause a new rift, said Goldman.
"This seems to send a contrary message," he said. By
raising money to help him fight extradition, the actions of the
priest amount to an "endorsement" of Seifert, Goldman
He added that, since it was Jews who were harmed by Seifert and
other Nazis, it is they who hold the key to any forgiveness.
"Since the Jewish people are the people who have been harmed,
isn't it the part of the Jewish people to forgive, rather than for
the Catholic church to forgive?" he asked.