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Cardinal defends Pope Benedict XVI's leadership

VATICAN CITY - Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square, the Catholic Church's most joyous celebration, began with a senior cardinal defending Pope Benedict XVI from what he called "petty gossip" and hailing him for "unfailing" leadership and courage.

The pontiff himself ignored accusations that he perpetuated a climate of cover-up for pedophile priests, even as sex abuse scandals threatened to overshadow his papacy.

The ringing tribute by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, at the start of a Mass attended by tens of thousands of faithful, marked an unusual departure from the Vatican's Easter rituals, infusing the tradition-steeped religious ceremony with an air of a papal pep rally.

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.

Benedict looked weary during much of the Easter Sunday ceremony, the highlight of a heavy Holy Week schedule. But as the pope listened intently to Sodano's paean, a smile broke across his face, and, when the cardinal finished speaking, Benedict rose from his chair in front of the altar to embrace him.

Victims and their advocates are demanding that Benedict take personal responsibility.

In Britain, protests are growing against Pope Benedict XVI's planned trip in September. Some lawyers there question whether the Vatican's implicit statehood status should shield the pope from prosecution over sex crimes by pedophile priests. More than 10,000 people have signed a petition on Downing Street's Web site against the pope's four-day visit to England and Scotland, which will cost United Kingdom taxpayers an estimated $22.5 million.

In Germany, where the church faces intense criticism about the widening abuse scandal, a man attacked Bishop Felix Genn, of Muenster, with a broom handle during an Easter service, police said.

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