VATICAN CITY - Buffeted by sex abuse scandals, the Vatican kept up its stiff defense of Pope Benedict XVI Sunday, hailing him at the start of Easter Mass as an unfailing and courageous leader of a flock that takes no heed of "petty gossip."
The tribute by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, was an unusual departure from Easter ceremony traditions in St. Peter's Square. It underscored the Vatican's determination to defend Benedict from accusations that he was part of a culture of secrecy toward handling sex accusations involving clergy during the time before he became pope.
Benedict looked weary as he listened to Sodano's speech. A canopy on the central steps of St. Peter's Basilica shielded him from light rain.
Sodano said that, despite the rain, the atmosphere should be considered sunny.
"With this spirit today we rally close around you, successor to (St.) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the Holy church of Christ, to sing with you the Alleluia of Christian faith and hope," Sodano told the pope.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials which sometimes buffet the community of believers."
Tens of thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans turned out despite the weather.
Sunday's edition of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano denounced the accusations against the pope as a "vile defamation operation."
The Vatican has accused the media of fanning the scandal by reporting on cases of priests who raped children and bishops who either didn't report it to police or were obstructed from pursuing church trials by the Vatican.
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.
In rushing to Benedict's defense, the Vatican has angered abuse victims and their advocates, as well as Jewish leaders, who fumed after the papal preacher in a Good Friday sermon told the pope that the accusations against him were akin to the campaign of anti-Semitic violence that culminated in the Holocaust.
The preacher, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, told Corriere della Sera daily in an interview Sunday that he had no intention "of hurting the sensibilities of the Jews and of the victims of pedophilia."
"I have sincerely regretted and I ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both" lobbies, he was quoted as saying.