Castel Gandolfo, Italy: Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the Roman Catholic Church is in "times of difficulty" but avoided direct comment on sex abuse, as the Vatican faced fresh criticism over the scandal.
After a series of paedophile revelations which cast a pall over the holiest week in the Christian calendar, the embattled pontiff spoke Monday of priests' special responsibility to society in an Easter Monday prayer.
Benedict told hundreds of followers at Castel Gandolfo near Rome that "the loving presence (of Christ) accompanies the Church on its path and supports it in times of difficulty".
"Priests, ministers of Christ, have a special responsibility", said the 82-year-old pope, appearing calm and smiling, adding that they should be "messengers of victory over evil and death".
Many of the assembled worshippers waved banners of support.
But Benedict again stayed silent on the abuse scandal, which has reached the pope himself with claims that he helped shield predator priests when head of the Vatican's moral watchdog and as archbishop of Munich.
In a fresh twist, a report in Germany's Die Zeit magazine said that current Vatican number two Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and not the pope, bore the main responsibility for inaction in the scandal of a US priest.
Benedict has faced criticism over claims that, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he failed to take action despite being alerted twice by the archbishop of Wisconsin to claims that Father Lawrence Murphy had abused 200 deaf children.
Large-scale paedophile scandals have rocked the churches of Ireland, Austria, Switerzland, the United States and the pope's native Germany in recent days.
The Vatican has adopted a strategy of blaming the media for playing up the paedophile revelations, accusing them of trying to smear Benedict.
Top prelates closed ranks around the pope on Easter Sunday.
In an unusual gesture, the dean of the Vatican's College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, said that "the people of God are with you" and would ignore "idle chatter".
The pope's personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, had to apologise to outraged Jewish groups and abuse victims after evoking a parallel between attacks on the pope and anti-Semitism in a sermon Friday.
Some commentators have argued that the Vatican's approach is a sign of weakness.
The pope and the Church must "leave their bunker and their siege mentality" to "resolve the questions posed by this grave crisis", Giancarlo Zizola, a Vatican commentator at Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, told.
Another Vatican expert, Bruno Bartoloni, said Cantalamessa's comments about anti-semitism on Good Friday "gave the impression of a Vatican that was losing the plot a bit".
In Spain, the Parliament's socialist president Jose Bono accused the Catholic leadership of a "clumsy" response to the scandal.
"The Church hierarchy is behaving clumsily by not stating clearly that a few rotten apples don't spoil the whole barrel," said Bono, himself a Catholic.
A retired French bishop said it was a mistake to take a convicted Canadian paedophile priest into his diocese in the 1980s, but "back then, that's how the church operated."
"We were being helpful. We were asked to take in an undesirable priest and we agreed," Jacques Gaillot, the former bishop of Evreux, west of Paris, said in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper.
In the United States, documents in a ongoing lawsuit suggested that a priest accused of sexually molesting two girls in the United States spent years working for Roman Catholic schools in India
The Vatican had ignored repeated appeals by Bishop Victor Balke of Minnesota to act to protect women and girls in the priest's parish, according to a letter released by a lawyer representing the victim in a civil lawsuit.
First Published: Tuesday, April 06, 2010, 09:56