VATICAN CITY — Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, the Catholic church’s most joyous celebration, began with a senior cardinal defending Pope Benedict XVI from what he called “petty gossip” and hailing him for “unfailing” leadership and courage.
But the pontiff himself ignored accusations that he perpetuated a climate of coverup for pedophile priests, even as sex abuse scandals threatened to overshadow his papacy.
The ringing tribute by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, at the start of a Mass attended by tens of thousands of faithful, marked an unusual departure from the Vatican’s Easter rituals, infusing the tradition-steeped religious ceremony with an air of a papal pep rally.
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.
The pontiff and many bishops have been assailed by accusations from victims of clergy sexual abuse that Benedict helped shape and perpetuate a climate of coverup toward the crimes against children in parishes, schools, orphanages and other church-run institutions.
Victims and their advocates are demanding that Benedict take personal responsibility.
Yet, Sodano insisted, on Easter 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.
Dressed in gold robes and shielded from a cool drizzle by a canopy, Benedict looked weary during much of the Easter Sunday ceremony, 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 cardinal also rushed to the defence of all the Catholic priests who “generously serve the people of God, in parishes, recreation centres, schools, hospitals and many other places, as well as in the missions in the most remote parts of the world.”
In early evening, the pope, who turns 83 on April 16, was to fly by helicopter to the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside town in the Alban Hills south of Rome, where he will greet pilgrims in the palace courtyard on Monday.
Benedict 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. They cheered Benedict at the end of Sunday’s two-hour-long ceremony 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.
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.
One of the few angry parishioners 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.”