05 April 2010
ROME–A top Vatican cardinal has broken with tradition and used Easter mass celebrations to rally support around Pope Benedict XVI, who is under intense pressure for his handling of sex-abuse allegations against priests.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and the Vatican’s former secretary of state, pronounced his ringing endorsement shortly before Easter mass started Sunday, in front of thousands of worshippers huddled against the rain in St. Peter’s Square.
“Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes strike at the community of believers,” Sodano said.
His unusual departure from Easter traditions is the latest in a Vatican campaign to denounce what its newspaper has called “gross propaganda” against the Pope.
The Vatican is especially outraged by accusations that the pontiff perpetuated a climate of silence and coverup around pedophile priests.
Sodano saluted the Pope as “the unfailing rock of the holy church” and told him the faithful had come to “rally close around you.”
“We are deeply grateful to you for the strength of spirit and apostolic courage with which you announce the Gospel,” Sodano said, before embracing the pontiff warmly.
It was an extraordinary scene: A pontiff being reassured that he had the full support of the church. To create the show of unity, the Vatican chose Sodano to deliver the message – the very man Benedict unceremoniously removed as secretary of state shortly after becoming Pope almost five years ago.
Sodano’s statement did not go down well with groups representing victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
“When we speak up and tell how our childhood innocence was shattered by sexual assaults by priests, it is not `petty gossip,'” said U.S. activist Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a statement.
There is growing concern within the Vatican that Benedict’s pontificate will be defined by the sex-abuse scandal. However, the Vatican’s attempts at damage control so far seem to have worsened matters.
One such attempt last week backfired when the Pope’s personal preacher, in his Good Friday sermon, compared criticism of the Church over child abuse to “collective violence suffered by the Jews.”
The statement caused outrage among Jews and forced the Vatican spokesman to repeatedly say Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa had not voiced the official position of the Vatican. Yet, the official Vatican paper, L’Osservatore Romano, published the remarks in his sermon online.
In an interview published Saturday, Cantalamessa apologized and insisted the Pope had not known he would include those remarks in his sermon.
He told the influential Corriere della Sera that a Jewish friend, whose letter he had quoted in the sermon, was referring to “the use of stereotype and the easy passage from individual to collective guilt.”
The Pope himself has stayed silent about the sex-abuse uproar during the Easter weekend celebrations.
But the top Roman Catholic cleric in Belgium, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, in his Easter homily, denounced the “guilty silence” of church officials in the widespread pedophile scandal.
“For decades, the Church, like other institutions, has badly managed the problem of pedophilia in its ranks while it had an evangelical obligation to protect the dignity of these children,” Léonard said.
“With a guilty silence, it often gave preference to the reputation of certain men of the Church over the honour of the abused children. We must, by declaring the truth, restore their dignity which was abominably exploited,” he said.
After the Vatican mass, Benedict stepped onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and delivered his Urbi et Orbi (“To the city and the world”) message, in which he touched on the struggle of earthquake survivors in Haiti and Chile, on the suffering of Christians in Iraq and Pakistan, and on strife in the Middle East.
“May the saving power of Christ’s resurrection fill all of humanity,” he said, “so that it may overcome the multiple tragic expressions of a `culture of death’ which are becoming increasingly widespread.”
Benedict, who turns 83 on April 16, has watched as sex-abuse scandals have engulfed the Church in Ireland, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland and his native Germany. Before he became Pope, evidence of long-term abuse of children rocked the Church in Canada and the United States.
Scandal is also at the Pope’s doorstep. A psychiatrist who treated a priest accused of sexually abusing boys in the early 1980s says a German archdiocese, headed at the time by the future pope, neglected repeated warnings the priest should not be allowed to work with children. The priest was convicted a few years later in Bavaria of sexual abuse.
Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, as the Pope was known at the time, approved a decision to send the priest for therapy in 1980. But the psychiatrist recently told the New York Times he does not know if Ratzinger knew of his repeated warnings about the man.
The Pope is also accused of failing to act against three abusive priests in the U.S. who were brought to his attention when he headed the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the office responsible for disciplining priests.