As pilgrims, tourists and the faithful congregate in St Peter's Square today to collect olive branches during a solemn Palm Sunday Mass, an embattled Pope Benedict XVI is coming under mounting pressure to call an emergency synod of bishops from around the world to hammer out a new strategy to deal with the worsening child abuse scandal, Vatican sources say.
A number of Roman Catholic prelates have strongly urged the Holy See that such an extraordinary synod, or conference, be held on the grounds that the German pontiff and the Vatican evidently cannot cope effectively on their own with the spiralling image crisis.
"There is a deep feeling of unease in the Vatican at the moment," said one well-placed source in the Holy See. "Senior people in the Curia feel under siege from parts of the international media as they see it trying to nail the Pope for allegedly covering up or mishandling abuse cases.
"Many bishops have let it be known they want Benedict to convene a special synod or worldwide conference of bishops to examine the problem because of a growing feeling that the Vatican cannot handle this."
The source added: "There is a realisation that the scandal is not going to stop. It is not one country or five countries but an increasing number."
Among aspects of the paedophilia maelstrom to be dealt with, Benedict currently has resignation letters from three Irish bishops sitting on his desk in the Apostolic Palace. Even as he considers them, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, the primate of all Ireland, is considering whether to resign, a decision which, as he said in his St Patrick's day homily, he is reflecting on between now and Easter.
The three bishops, James Moriarty, Raymond Field and Eamonn Walsh, tendered their resignations following the publication of the Murphy report into abuse.
"It is quite possible that Brady will resign," said one Vatican insider. "He could go with his head held high and if he goes, others would follow."
Vatican sources poured scorn on the suggestion on Friday by Der Spiegel magazine that Benedict might consider resigning over the affair.
However, in addition to the damage to the image of the Catholic church from the scandals, described as a "catastrophe" by some senior Vatican officials, Benedict will celebrate his 83rd birthday on 16 April, and papal advisers are concerned about the effect the stress from handling the crisis may have on his health as he braces himself for another round of tiring public appearances celebrating Easter. Before last Christmas, papal doctors told the pontiff, who suffered two minor strokes before his election, to slow down, persuading him to slim down his gruelling Christmas schedule and prohibiting him from making any more tiring long-haul foreign trips.
The Vatican media and its tiny press office have gone into overdrive to fend off criticism of Benedict himself for his record during his period as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982 and as head of the Holy Office from 1982 to 2005.
Benedict has received messages of support from around the world, with many commentators pointing out that from the outset of his pontificate he made it clear he intended to clean out what he termed emphatically "the filth" in the church, marking himself out as the first occupant of St Peter's throne publicly to declare war on sexual abuse by paedophile priests.
The Vatican's insistence that coverage in the United States by The New York Times and other newspapers of the case of the American priest Lawrence Murphy has been biased has found considerable resonance among many hardened veterans of the Holy See press corps. They feel that Father Lombardi, the Pope's chief spokesman, a Jesuit who is also head of Vatican Radio, made a fair point by underlining that the late priest's alleged abuse of 200 deaf schoolboys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dated back to the period from the 1950s to the 1970s and was only brought to the attention of the Vatican in 1996 when Murphy was dying and his case had been legally proscribed by judicial authorities in the US.
In an attempt to bolster the church's flagging image, the extraordinary synod of bishops would examine issues that critics say were missing from the Pope's pastoral letter to the Irish church last weekend, especially what new administrative penalties, including removal, should be adopted to discipline bishops who cover up abuse. The culture of secrecy is seen not only as bad in itself, but as something that may have encouraged abuse because priests knew they may be shielded from the full rigours of the law.
The Pope's advisers see the abuse crisis as "a catastrophe" for the image of the church and watched aghast as the Pope's brother was targeted. "Benedict's brother came out badly as an irascible guy who clipped children behind the ear and threw a chair at choristers and who may have heard about abuse but done nothing," said the insider. "At the time this was par for the course, with the general attitude being hear no evil, see no evil."
The resignation of the Irish bishop John Magee, described as a removal by Vatican sources rather than a voluntary move, has nevertheless gone some way towards convincing church circles that the Pope is willing to see heads roll. "The removal of Magee was a big thing here because he had a lot of clout, he had a lot of friends and had been secretary to three popes. He had little option but to resign because he knew what is in the [Irish government] report," said one source.
The feeling that the Holy See is out of its depth was underlined by Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's Promoter of Justice, or chief prosecutor, who is seen as having done a lot of very good work dealing with abuse cases. He acknowledged that his department was insufficiently staffed to handle paperwork that often runs into thousands of pages for just one victim.
Cardinal Walter Kasper has also defended the Pope, saying he was the first to recognise the need for a harsher stance against offenders. He says attacks on Benedict go "beyond any limit of justice and loyalty". Cardinal Kasper said in an interview published yesterday in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera that the church needs to be more vigilant and that the path the church is on is "irreversible".
Next month the Pope is scheduled to travel to Malta, the day after celebrating his birthday with his brother in the papal apartments high above St Peter's Square. The visit will be the first of a series of short trips his doctors have authorised as long as he stays in his "backyard" in the Mediterranean and Europe.
The abuse issue has also provided an arena for clashes between commentators. The Daily Telegraph's Damian Thompson has attacked the religious affairs correspondent of The Times, Ruth Gledhill, taking her to task for what he perceives as anti-Catholic bias. And several writers have criticised Christopher Hitchens for writing of the Pope: "Ratzinger himself may be banal, but his whole career has the stench of evil."
Church abuse scandals across the globe
USA More than $2bn paid out by church to victims of abuse. Latest scandal involves church's failure to discipline Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused as many as 200 boys at a school for the deaf.
Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady was present at meetings more than 30 years ago where children claiming they had been abused were forced to sign vows of secrecy. Bishop John Magee of Cloyne was accused of mishandling claims of abuse in his diocese. He later resigned.
Italy Some 67 former pupils described sexual abuse and beatings over a 30-year period at school for deaf in Verona.
Germany Around 300 allegations of child abuse by church officers. Investigations ongoing in 18 of Germany's 27 dioceses.
Netherlands Bishops ordered inquiry into 200 abuse cases.
There are further cases in recent years in Australia, Austria, Brazil, France and Switzerland.