Thousands of priests rally in defence of pope

Around 9,000 priests are in Rome to celebrate end of church`s year of priest.

Vatican City: Thousands of priests from around the world have massed in Rome in one of the largest such gatherings ever in a major show of support for Pope Benedict XVI amid the clerical abuse scandal.

Benedict is expected to address them on Thursday evening in an eagerly anticipated vigil service in St Peter`s Square. It`s not known whether Benedict will refer to the crisis, but his No 2 told the prelates on Wednesday that the scandal had pained and damaged the church and shown the need for a spiritual rebirth.

An estimated 9,000 priests are in Rome to celebrate the end of the church`s year of the priest — a year that has been marred by revelations of hundreds of new cases of clerical abuse and Vatican inaction to stop it.

In addressing priests on Wednesday, the Vatican No 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the revelations had harmed the credibility of the church. But he said they had also provided a "providential realisation" of the need for a "new season of spiritual renewal and rebirth”.

There is some speculation that Benedict may again refer to the scandal, following his recent comments en route to Portugal during which he acknowledged that it was born of the "sin within the church" and not from outside elements. Previously Vatican officials, Vatican publications and cardinals had blamed the scandal on the media, the Masons and anti-Catholic lobbies, among others.

On Wednesday, during his weekly general audience, Benedict urged prayers for the priests gathered for the event, which has taken on something of the feel of a rally in support of the pontiff amid the scandal.

Bureau Report