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.
Dressed in gold robes and shielded from a cool drizzle by a canopy, Benedict looked weary during much of the Mass, the highlight of a heavy Holy Week schedule. But as he listened intently to Sodano's paean, a smile broke across the pope's face, and when the cardinal finished speaking, Benedict rose from his chair in front of the altar to embrace him.
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.
Sodano said the faithful came to "rally close around you, successor to (St.) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the holy church" amid the joy of Easter.
"We are deeply grateful to you for the strength of spirit and apostolic courage with which you announce the Gospel," said Sodano, who sought to assure Benedict that the scandals were not costing him credibility among his flock.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not allow themselves to be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials which sometimes buffet the community of believers," Sodano said.
Sodano's words irked a prominent advocacy group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"When we speak up and tell how our childhood innocence was shattered by sexual assaults by priests, it is not 'petty gossip,' " SNAP president Barbara Blaine said in a statement.