Vatican City: A leading cardinal, making an unusual address in defence of Pope Benedict at the start of Easter Sunday Mass, said the Church would not be intimidated by "petty gossip" about sexual abuse of children by priests.
The surprise speech by Cardinal Angelo Sodano was believed to be the first time in recent memory that the ritual of a papal Easter Sunday Mass was changed to allow someone to address the pope at the start.
The change of protocol indicated just how much the Vatican is feeling the pressure from a growing scandal concerning sexual abuse of children by priests and reports of a possible cover-up that have inched ever closer to the pope himself.
"With this spirit today we rally close around you, successor to (St) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the Holy church of Christ, to sing with you the Alleluia of Christian faith and hope," Sodano told the pope.
"Holy Father, the people of God are with you and will not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers," Sodano said.
Sodano`s speech also indicated that the Vatican`s strategy was that the pope would not address the issue directly for the time being, at least not in the context of religious services.
The pope was due to deliver his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address at the end of the ceremony.
Sodano, a former secretary of state who was a top aide to the late Pope John Paul, praised Benedict as the "solid rock" that holds up the Church.
"The Church is with you," Sodano told the pope to the cheers of thousands of people in a rainy St Peter`s Square.
His speech of solidarity, given to reporters minutes before he read it, listed those who support the pope, particularly "the 400,000 priests who generously serve" in schools, hospitals and missions around the world.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans turned out despite the weather.
Sunday`s edition of the Vatican newspaper L`Osservatore Romano denounced the accusations against the pope as a "vile defamation operation."
The Vatican has accused the media of fanning the scandal by reporting on cases of priests who raped children and bishops who either didn`t report it to police or were obstructed from pursuing church trials by the Vatican.