Support for Pope in the face of 'petty gossip'

<b>Michael Day:</b> Vatican flouts Easter tradition by giving cardinal a platform to defend Benedict.
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The Vatican broke with papal ritual yesterday, allowing a leading cardinal to begin the Easter Sunday Mass with an address that seemed more like a pep talk for Pope Benedict, who is in the eye of a growing storm over clerical sex-abuse.

In his surprise speech, Cardinal Angelo Sodano lauded the pontiff as "a solid rock", praised his "unfailing leadership" and declared "the Church is with you", as the thousands of faithful huddled under umbrellas in St Peter's Square cheered and applauded.

"Holy Father, the people of God are with you and will not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers," Cardinal Sodano said.

Shielded from the drizzle by a canopy, the Pope looked weary during the Easter Sunday ceremony, but his face broke into a smile for the cardinal's paean. And when Cardinal Sodano had finished speaking, the Pope rose from his chair to embrace him.

In his own Urbi et Orbi address hours later, he made no direct mention of the paedophilia scandal which has engulfed the Church, creating the biggest crisis of his five-year-old reign as head of the Catholic Church.

Easter brought a message of pardon, goodness and truth, he said. Humanity was suffering and the salvation of the Gospel was needed "to emerge from a profound crisis, one which requires deep change, beginning with consciences".

He mentioned the religious persecution suffered by Christians in Pakistan, recalled the hardships of the victims of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, denounced drug-related violence in Latin America and prayed for peace in the Middle East.

But, of the allegations of clerical sex-abuse around the world, including Germany, Ireland, Austria, Italy, Malta and the US, and of the allegations of a cover-up that led all the way to the Vatican, there was not a word.

Among the Catholics leaving the square in Rome at the end of the Easter Mass, there were some who were disappointed with the Pope's words. "[He should just address the crisis directly ... They should deal with it in a lawful, equitable and just manner, and they should treat victims with respect," Nancy Malone of the US told Reuters.

Benedict has been accused of knowingly allowing a paedophile priest, Father Peter Hullerman, to continue working in his diocese when he was archbishop of Munich, as well as failing, in his capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to act against a American cleric who assaulted around 200 boys in a school for the deaf in Wisconsin.

Yesterday's edition of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, denounced the personal accusations made against Benedict as a "vile defamation operation".

The Vatican has stressed that only a tiny minority of priests have abused children, and, in his address in St Peter's Square, Cardinal Sodano pointedly mentioned "the 400,000 priests who generously serve" around the world. Later, the Venetian Cardinal Angelo Scola went on Italian television to say that the Pope was holding up well against a campaign of "deceitful accusations", drawing on his "usual spiritual energy".

Meanwhile, the Vatican was still reeling from its Good Friday PR disaster, when the Pope's personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the mounting criticism of the Catholic Church over child abuse to the "collective violence suffered by the Jews".

It provoked an instant tide of anger and incredulity from victim support groups and the Jewish lobby. Father Cantalamessa apologised over the weekend: "If – and it was not my intention to do so – I hurt the sensitivities of Jews and victims of paedophilia, I am truly sorry and I ask for forgiveness," he said.