Vatican City — 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.
Pope’s ‘spiritual energy’
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.
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.