Defending the reputation of the pope before preaching the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an odd twist for Easter Sunday. But that's exactly what happened this Easter at the Vatican -- a sign of how concerned the Catholic hierarchy is about reports on the track record of Pope Benedict XVI in dealing with the scandals of the sexual abuse of children by clergy.
In an extraordinary departure from the ritual of Easter Mass at St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a senior Vatican official and Dean of the College of Cardinals, staunchly defended Pope Benedict from what he called ''petty gossip'' and hailed his ''unfailing'' leadership and courage in leading the church's response to the crisis.
Sodano's remarks came two days after the papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, sparked more controversy when he delivered a Good Friday homily
to the pope and senior Vatican official in St. Peter's Basilica comparing the media coverage of the scandals to centuries of persecution against the Jews.
In an interview with a leading Italian daily on Sunday, Cantalamessa, said that he had no intention ''of hurting the sensibilities of the Jews and of the victims of pedophilia.''
''I have sincerely regretted and I ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both'' groups, he was quoted as saying in Corriere della Sera.
Still, Sunday's edition of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano denounced the accusations against the pope as a "vile defamation operation."
And Sodano's remarks, in such a formal setting and requiring a rearrangement of the Easter liturgy, also showed clearly that the Vatican is going to play hardball in trying to defend the pope against a growing number of reports showing that he did not act quickly or with much sense of urgency when efforts to defrock or remove abusive priests came before him.
It also seems to indicate that Benedict himself is not about to speak directly about the reports swirling around him. The nearly 83-year-old pope, who reports said looked tired at events over this Easter weekend, did not mention the crisis in his Easter homily or his "Urbi et Orbi" blessing and message delivered to the "city and the world" after the mass.
The Associated Press reported
that the message analyzed humanity's failings and hopes.
Benedict singled out the "trials and sufferings" of Christians in Iraq and Pakistan, noting that these believers have risked persecution and death for their faith, the AP reported. He urged hope for the people of Haiti and Chile, devastated by earthquakes. He said Easter could "signal the victory of peaceful coexistence and respect" in crime-ravaged areas of Latin American countries plagued by drug trafficking and said he would pray for peace in the Middle East.
But, despite repeated appeals by victims of clerical sexual abuse that he take responsibility for his role in the handling of pedophile priests, he stayed silent on that issue. The victims contend there were decades of systematic cover-up by bishops in many countries, including the United States, Ireland and Benedict's native Germany.