ROME (AP) — A politically connected priest on trial for allegedly sexually molesting young boys proclaimed his innocence Tuesday and denounced what he said was "mud" being thrown on the pope concerning the clerical abuse scandal.

The Rev. Ruggero Conti made a spontaneous declaration during a court hearing in Rome. He is accused of sexual violence and prostitution concerning seven young boys who frequented his parish in a working class neighborhood of Rome.

In police interrogations, the boys — some as young as 13 at the time of the alleged abuse — said Conti would masturbate them and force them to perform oral sex on him in his home where he frequently invited them to eat dinner and watch movies.

The case is being closely watched because Conti served as an adviser to Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno and worked in the Vatican's backyard.

In his declaration Tuesday, Conti proclaimed his innocence and linked his case to the criticism the pope has been weathering in recent weeks as the clerical abuse scandal swirls around the Vatican.

"Here I am, Mr. President, and I am not a monster, I am innocent, I say it with clean conscience, humbly," Conti said.

"I am a priest, the infamies of which I am accused accumulate other hatred, not only on myself, but it (the hatred) bounces off immediately like a stone on the water to hit the Church and hurt the Holy Father," Conti said, denouncing the "mud" that has been thrown at the pontiff.

Conti was arrested June 30, 2008, as he prepared to travel with youths from his parish to World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia.

Conti's bishop, Monsignor Gino Reali, has acknowledged in a prosecutors' interrogation that he knew of vague accusations two years before Conti was arrested by police, yet didn't remove him from pastoral work or otherwise report him to authorities.

Reali said he told Conti not to let boys visit his home but acknowledged he wasn't in a position to enforce such a measure.

Lawyers for the victims plan to put Reali on the stand May 20. They have said that if Reali testifies he knew of the abuse yet didn't take measures to report it to police or his superiors, that could constitute aiding and abetting a crime.

Caramella Buona, a nonprofit organization that has been providing legal assistance to Conti's alleged victims, denounced Conti's declaration Tuesday, saying he was out of line to equate his plight with that of the pope.

"Don Ruggero and his friends are losing their patience because the proof against him is becoming overwhelming," said the organization's president, Roberto Mirabile.