(AP) — A senior cardinal staunchly defended Pope Benedict XVI from "petty gossip" on Sunday as the pontiff maintained his silence on mounting sex abuse cover-up accusations during his Easter message.
The ringing tribute by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, at the start of Mass attended by tens of thousands of faithful in St. Peter's Square, marked an unusual departure from the Vatican's Easter rituals.
Sodano's defense of the pope's "unfailing" leadership and courage, as well as of the work of priests worldwide with children entrusted to their care, built on a vigorous Vatican campaign to defend Benedict's moral authority.
The pontiff and other church leaders have been assailed by accusations from victims of clergy sexual abuse that he helped shape and perpetuate a climate of cover-up toward the crimes against children in parishes, schools, orphanages and other church-run institutions.
Dressed in gold robes and shielded from a cool drizzle by a canopy, Benedict looked weary as he listened to Sodano's speech at the start of Mass in the cobblestone square bedecked with daffodils, tulips and azaleas.
In early evening, the pope, who turns 83 later this month, was to fly by helicopter to the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside retreat in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome, where he will greet pilgrims from the palace courtyard balcony on Monday.
Easter Sunday Mass was the highlight of a heavy schedule of public appearances by the pope before the thousands of faithful who have poured into Rome for Holy Week services.
"With this spirit today we rally close around you, successor to (St.) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the holy church," Sodano said. "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."
At the end of the two-hour long ceremony, Benedict delivered the papacy's traditional Easter "Urbi et Orbi" message — Latin for "to the city and to the world" — which analyzes 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. 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.
They want him to demand the resignations of bishops complicit in any conspiracy to shield pedophile priests by shuffling them from parish to parish instead of kicking them out of the priesthood.
The accusations against the pope stem from his leadership as archbishop of Munich before he came to the Vatican three decades ago, as well as his long tenure in Rome leading the Holy See's office dealing with a growing pile of dossiers about pedophile priests.
Sunday's edition of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano denounced the accusations against the pope as a "vile defamation operation."
Benedict hasn't made any explicit reference to the sex abuse scandals since he released a letter to the Irish faithful concerning the abuse crisis in that country on March 20.
Sodano defended the church's priests as well as the pontiff.
"Especially with you in these days are those 400,000 priests who generously serve the people of God, in parishes, recreation centers, schools, hospitals and many other places, as well as in the missions in the most remote parts of the world," the cardinal said.
In rushing to Benedict's defense, the Vatican has angered abuse victims and their advocates. Jewish leaders also fumed after the papal preacher in a Good Friday sermon told the pope that the accusations against him were akin to the campaign of anti-Semitic violence that culminated in the Holocaust.
The preacher, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, told Corriere della Sera daily in an interview Sunday 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" lobbies, he was quoted as saying.