VATICAN CITY — It was the Catholic calendar's holiest moment — the Mass celebrating the resurrection of Christ. But with Pope Benedict XVI accused of failing to protect children from abusive priests, Easter Sunday also was a high-profile opportunity to play defense.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God," Cardinal Angelo Sodano told the pontiff, whom victims of clergy sexual abuse accuse of helping to shape and perpetuate a climate of cover-up. Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, dismissed those claims as "petty gossip."
The ringing tribute at the start of a Mass attended by tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square marked an unusual departure from the Vatican's Easter rituals, infusing the tradition-steeped religious ceremony with an air of a papal pep rally.
The pontiff hasn't responded to accusations that he did too little to protect children from pedophile priests, even as sex abuse scandals threaten to overshadow his papacy.
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.