A senior cardinal defended Pope Benedict XVI from "petty gossip" on Sunday as the pontiff maintained his silence on mounting sex abuse cover-up accusations during his Easter message.
The ringing tribute by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, at the start of Mass attended by tens of thousands of faithful in St. Peter's Square, marked an unusual departure from the Vatican's Easter rituals.
"Holy Father, the people of God are with you and will not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers," Sodano said.
The change of protocol underscored just how much the Vatican is feeling the pressure from the growing sex-abuse scandal and possible cover-up that have inched closer to the pope himself.
Dressed in gold robes and shielded from a cool drizzle by a canopy, Benedict looked weary as he listened to Sodano's speech at the start of Mass in the cobblestone square bedecked with daffodils, tulips and azaleas.
Sodano, a former secretary of state, praised Benedict as the "solid rock" that holds up the Church.
"The Church is with you!" Sodano told the pope to the cheers of thousands of people holding umbrellas in St Peter's Square.
His speech of solidarity listed those who support the pope, particularly "the 400,000 priests who generously serve" in schools, hospitals and missions around the world. This was a clear attempt to underscore the Vatican's position that only a tiny minority of priests have abused children.
Later, the pope did not mention the scandal in his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address, which touched on a series of world problems.
'Trials and sufferings'
Benedict singled out the "trials and sufferings" of Christians in Iraq and Pakistan, noting that these believers have risked persecution and death for their faith. He urged hope for the people of Haiti and Chile, devastated by earthquakes. He said Easter could "signal the victory of peaceful coexistence and respect" in crime-ravaged areas of Latin American countries plagued by drug trafficking and said he would pray for peace in the Middle East.
But, despite repeated appeals by victims of clerical sexual abuse that he take responsibility for his role in the handling of pedophile priests, he stayed silent on that issue. The victims contend there were decades of systematic cover-up by bishops in many countries, including the United States, Ireland and Benedict's native Germany.
They want him to demand the resignations of bishops complicit in any conspiracy to shield pedophile priests by shuffling them from parish to parish instead of kicking them out of the priesthood.
The accusations against the pope stem from his leadership as archbishop of Munich before he came to the Vatican three decades ago, as well as his long tenure in Rome of the Holy See's office dealing with a growing pile of dossiers about pedophile priests.
Victims group angry
"Victims are seeking consolation and healing and should not be insulted and told that our speaking out is petty gossip," said Barbara Blaine, a leader of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"The pope has said the truth should be exposed. They can't have it both ways," she told Reuters.
The celebrations leading up to Easter have been clouded by accusations the Church in several countries mishandled and covered up abuse of children by priests, sometimes for decades.
Shaken by the crisis, the Vatican has several times accused the media of trying 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.
Sunday's edition of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano denounced the accusations against the pope as a "vile defamation operation."
Benedict hasn't made any explicit reference to the scandal since he released a letter to the Irish faithful concerning the abuse crisis in that country on March 20.
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 the priest was not defrocked.
On Saturday, the Vatican's newspaper kept up its campaign against the media for reports on alleged cover-ups of sexual abuse of children by priests, saying the pope had become the target of a "despicable campaign of defamation".
On Sunday, the pope's personal preacher apologized to Jews after he compared attacks on the Church to "collective violence" against Jews throughout history.
"If — and it was not my intention to do so — I hurt the sensitivities of Jews and victims of pedophilia, I am truly sorry and I ask for forgiveness," Father Raniero Cantalamessa said in an interview with Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.
He also said the pope was not aware of his remarks and that the pontiff heard them for the first time along with everyone else in St. Peter's Basilica on Good Friday.
Jewish groups around the world had reacted with shock.
Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, said the remarks were particularly insensitive because they were made on the day that for centuries Christians prayed for the conversion of the Jews, who were once held collectively responsible for Jesus' death.
A Vatican spokesman later said the comparison "is absolutely not the line of the Vatican and of the Catholic Church".