Pray for Pope amid abuse row, Catholics urged

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Catholics were today urged by one of the most senior clergymen in England and Wales to pray for Pope Benedict in the face of attacks over his record on handling clerical sex abuse cases.

The Most Rev Bernard Longley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, said the Pope had been subject to some "intense and unjustified" criticism.

He told a congregation at the traditional Easter Monday "Men's Mass" at St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham, that Catholics should pray for the Pope and "stand by" him as he witnesses to the "truth" and "healing" of Christ.

"People's perceptions of the Catholic Church are, of course, influenced by what they have been reading and hearing in the news," he said.

"Pope Benedict XVI has expressed the sadness and shame that the whole Church feels at the abuse of young and vulnerable people by those entrusted within the Church itself with their well-being and formation."

He added: "In witnessing to the risen Lord we must find new ways of serving those who have suffered - not least by helping to restore their confidence in Christ's love for them and in the Catholic Church's genuine concern for their healing and well-being."

Archbishop Longley's remarks come at the end of a Holy Week, and Easter, in which the Vatican, and the Pope personally, have faced accusations of failing to protect children from abusive priests.

Catholic archbishops marked Easter Sunday with a series of apologies as they admitted the Church's "guilt" and "shame" over the sex abuse scandal.

In Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, head of the Catholic Church, admitted his own responsibility for taking part in the culture of cover-up.

It emerged last month that Cardinal Brady was present when children signed vows of silence over allegations against a paedophile priest in 1975.

He said: "I realise that, however unintentionally, however unknowingly, I too allowed myself to be influenced by that culture in our Church, and our society."

At Dublin's Pro Cathedral, a small group of angry protesters briefly interrupted the service by placing children's shoes at the altar to represent the child victims.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI made no mention of the accusations which have rocked the Church. And in front of the faithful in St Peter's Square, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, defended the Pontiff against the "petty gossip of the moment".

Speaking at Westminster Cathedral, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, and the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, said: "In recent weeks the serious sins committed within the Catholic community have been much talked about.

"For our part, we have been reflecting on them deeply, acknowledging our guilt and our need for forgiveness."

Pressure has been mounting on the Catholic Church since two harrowing reports were published in Ireland last year, the first revealing that the Church and the Irish Government covered up decades of sexual abuse and beatings by priests and nuns on thousands of children in state care.

The second inquiry found the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland was granted immunity to cover up child sex abuse among paedophile priests in Dublin.

The Pope last month issued a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics in which he apologised to the victims of paedophile priests in the country.

The wider Catholic Church has also been engulfed by sex abuse scandals this year, with victims coming forward in Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and the United States.

The Pope himself has faced questions about his handling of a case during his time as Archbishop of Munich and when he, as Cardinal Ratzinger, headed the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was drawn into the row when he suggested in a BBC interview that the sex abuse scandals in Ireland had led to the Catholic Church in the country "losing all credibility".

Dr Williams later phoned Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who said he was stunned by the remarks, to say he "had no intention of criticising or attacking" the Catholic Church.