VATICAN CITY – VATICAN CITY (AP) — It was the Catholic calendar's holiest moment — the Mass celebrating the resurrection of Christ. But with Pope Benedict XVI accused of failing to protect children from abusive priests, Easter Sunday also was a high-profile opportunity to play defense.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God," Cardinal Angelo Sodano told the pontiff, whom victims of clergy sexual abuse accuse of helping to shape and perpetuate a climate of cover-up. Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, dismissed those claims as "petty gossip."
The ringing tribute at the start of a Mass attended by tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square marked an unusual departure from the Vatican's Easter rituals, infusing the tradition-steeped religious ceremony with an air of a papal pep rally.
Dressed in gold robes and shielded from a cool drizzle by a canopy, Benedict looked weary during much of the Mass, the highlight of a heavy Holy Week schedule. But as he listened intently to Sodano's paean, a smile broke across the pope's face, and when the cardinal finished speaking, Benedict rose from his chair in front of the altar to embrace him.
The pontiff hasn't responded to accusations that he did too little to protect children from pedophile priests, even as sex abuse scandals threaten to overshadow his papacy.
Sodano's praise for Benedict as well as the church's 400,000 priests worldwide cranked up a vigorous campaign by the Holy See to counter what it calls a "vile" smear operation orchestrated by anti-Vatican media aimed at weakening the papacy and its moral authority.
Sodano said the faithful came to "rally close around you, successor to (St.) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the holy church" amid the joy of Easter.
"We are deeply grateful to you for the strength of spirit and apostolic courage with which you announce the Gospel," said Sodano, who sought to assure Benedict that the scandals were not costing him credibility among his flock.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not allow themselves to be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials which sometimes buffet the community of believers," Sodano said.
The cardinal also rushed to the defense of all the Catholic priests who "generously serve the people of God, in parishes, recreation centers, schools, hospitals and many other places, as well as in the missions in the most remote parts of the world."
Benedict, who turns 83 on April 16, was holding up well against the campaign of "deceitful accusations" against him, Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola said in an interview on Italian state TV Sunday. Scola said he recently had dined with the pope, who was drawing on his "usual spiritual energy."
Easter Sunday Mass was the last major Holy Week appearance by the pope in Rome for the thousands of faithful who have poured into the city. On Monday, he will greet pilgrims in the courtyard of the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside town in the Alban Hills south of Rome.
Worshippers cheered Benedict at the end of Sunday's two-hour-long Mass in the cobblestone square bedecked with daffodils, tulips and azaleas.
After the Mass, Benedict moved to the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to deliver his "Urbi et Orbi" message — Latin for "to the city and to the world" — which analyzes humanity's failings and hopes.
He singled out the "trials and sufferings," including persecution and even death, of Christians in Iraq and Pakistan, and of people in Haiti and Chile, devastated by earthquakes. He hoped for peaceful coexistence to win out over criminal violence in Latin American countries plagued by drug trafficking, and promised to pray for peace in the Middle East.
His speech ignored demands by victims that he shoulder some responsibility for a common practice by bishops in the past of shuffling pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than sullying the church's reputation by defrocking clergy who raped, sodomized or otherwise sexually abused minors.
The accusations against the pope stem from his leadership as archbishop of Munich, in his native Germany, before he came to the Vatican three decades ago, as well as his long tenure in Rome leading the Holy See's office dealing with a growing pile of dossiers about pedophile priests.
Sodano's words irked a prominent advocacy group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"When we speak up and tell how our childhood innocence was shattered by sexual assaults by priests, it is not 'petty gossip,'" SNAP president Barbara Blaine said in a statement.
In the pope's homeland of Germany, which has been rocked by a widening abuse scandal, police said they arrested a man who attacked the Roman Catholic bishop of Muenster with a broom handle during an Easter service in the city's cathedral.
Bishop Felix Genn, 60, defended himself with an incense bowl and was unharmed. After the incident, he continued celebrating the Easter service. The man's motive was unclear, police said.
Germany's top Roman Catholic cleric, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, urged Catholics in his Easter homily not to break with the church even as they face "the heinous crimes, the dark sides of the church."
So far, the Vatican's counterattack to beat back the scandal accusations already backfired in one high-profile attempt.
Jewish leaders, and even some top Catholic churchmen, were angered after Benedict's personal preacher, in a Good Friday sermon, likened the growing accusations against the pope 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," expressed regret and asked for forgiveness.
He was quoted as saying that the pope wasn't aware of what the sermon would say beforehand, and that no Vatican officials read the text before the Good Friday service.
The apology satisfied one Jewish leader, Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
"Now that he has apologized and the Vatican has distanced itself from those remarks, the matter is closed," Steinberg said in a statement.
Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois told Le Parisien newspaper that he understood the "violent and indignant" reaction that Friday's sermon provoked in Jews and pedophilia victims. Still, the French churchman denounced what he called a campaign of "denigration and slander" against the pope and said he shouldn't resign.
Washington, D.C., Archbishop Donald Wuerl joined those defending Benedict, writing in an opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post that the pope has supported U.S. bishops' commitment to child protection policies.
In Milwaukee, where one priest was accused of assaulting some 200 deaf boys, at least a dozen churchgoers told The Associated Press they were not closely following a scandal that has engulfed the church. A canonical trial was initiated against the Rev. Lawrence Murphy years after the alleged abuse, but a Vatican office led at the time by Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, halted the proceedings. Murphy died soon after.
Tony Pisani said he was frustrated by what he was hearing in the news but he is waiting to hear the reaction of the pope himself.
"I haven't seen too many statements from him," the Milwaukee man said. "I'd like to see what safeguards he's implemented to make sure something like this doesn't happen again."
One angry parishioner was 68-year-old Jackson Spears, who said the church should have taken strong action from the beginning.
"I think the pope should have been more aggressive and he should have done something sooner," Spears said. "The church shouldn't condone these things and should have years ago done something about it."
Associated Press writer Angela Doland in Paris and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.