Pope Benedict XVI urged humanity to undergo a "spiritual and moral conversion" during his Easter Mass. A senior cardinal dismissed the allegations against him as "petty gossip."
All eyes were on the pope as he made his Easter message
Applause rang out in St. Peter's Square as Pope Benedict XVI concluded a much-anticipated Easter Mass on Sunday, in which a senior cardinal praised the pontiff's leadership and dismissed the allegations against him as "petty gossip."
The pope urged humanity to undergo a "spiritual and moral conversion" during his traditional Easter message, but did not directly address the ongoing scandal over child abuse which has rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
The leader of some 1.1 billion Catholics was under pressure to reiterate his condemnation of predator priests in his "urbi et orbi" message to the world, but the only oblique reference to the scandal came in a surprise speech by the dean of the Vatican's College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano.
"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 remarks were believed to be the first time in recent memory that the protocol of a papal Easter Sunday Mass was changed to allow someone to address the pope at the start.
"The Church is with you," Sodano told the pontiff to the cheers of thousands of people in a rainy St Peter's Square.
Clouded by scandal
Many priests expressed their support for the pope
The celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday have been overshadowed by European bishops condemning the church's role in child abuse cases and fresh allegations of cover-up emerging against a prominent cardinal in the United States.
Over the Easter weekend, top bishops in both Belgium and Germany have issued forthright condemnations of the church's role in covering up abuse within its ranks.
The leader of Germany's Roman Catholic bishops, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, said the Catholic Church must examine its "dark aspects as well as our own shadowy sides."
"The Church must not be inactive: we need a new beginning," Zollitsch wrote in his Easter message on the Web site of his archdiocese of Freiburg im Breisgau in southwest Germany.
Belgian Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Mechelen-Brussel also denounced what he called the "guilty silence" of the church, criticizing officials for often caring more about the reputation of priests rather than the abused children.
Easter celebrations came amid a trying time for the pontiff
Fresh scandal in America
In the United States, a fierce defender of Pope Benedict XVI during this ongoing scandal has now come under personal scrutiny. Court documents show Cardinal William Levada reassigned a priest and alleged child molester in the 1990s without warning parishioners.
In a sworn 2006 testimony about his time as Archbishop of Portland, Levada said he decided to reassign the offending priest if he underwent therapy.
"The abuse in question had happened 20 years before, or so," Levada testified. "The recommendation of the therapy was that he was not at risk for re-abusing and that it would be prudent to reassign him."
He was asked if he had warned parishioners about the Oregon priest's past - inappropriate sexual behaviour with teenagers in the 1970s. He said no.
Levada now heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and was chosen for the post by his predecessor and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who as pope now has come under criticism for failing to act against priests accused of child abuse in the past.
Editor: Toma Tasovac