Abuse Scandal Left Out Of Pope's Easter Address

As the Catholic Church is increasingly engulfed in a sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict XVI Sunday delivered his key Easter speech in St. Peter's Square. There were high expectations that he would address the controversy, including accusations that before he became Pope, he personally covered up cases of priests accused of sexually molesting children, but the speech carried no mention of the scandal. Host Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

As the Catholic Church is increasingly engulfed in a sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict XVI today delivered his key Easter speech in St. Peter's Square.

Pope BENEDICT XVI (Roman Catholic Church): (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: There were high expectations that he would address the controversy, including allegations that before he became Pope, he personally covered up cases of priests accused of sexually molesting children.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is on the line from Rome. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: What did Benedict say today?

POGGIOLI: Well, the Pope said Easter brings a message of pardon, goodness and truth to a suffering world. And he spoke of the trials of the sufferings of Christians in Iraq and Pakistan. And he also had words of hope and encouragement for the peoples of Haiti and Chile, who were devastated by earthquakes.

But he made no mention of the mounting clergy sex abuse allegations. In fact, he has not referred to the scandal since issued a letter to the Irish faithful on March 20th.

And in a sign that the Vatican is under siege over the whole - or feels that it's under siege over the whole sex abuse issue, in a surprise move, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano addressed the Pope directly at the start of the Mass and made a stirring defense of Benedict.

He described him as the solid rock that holds up the Church and told him, the faithful are rallying around you and will not allow themselves to be influenced by what he called the petty gossip of the moment.

HANSEN: And what was the mood among the faithful in the square?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, the crowd was a mixture of pilgrims and tourists, and clearly many of them were very eager to see Benedict and cheered him before he delivered his message. But perhaps because of the pouring rain, the crowd was not quite as big as I remember at previous Easter ceremonies, even in bad weather.

I spoke to quite a few people and their reactions ranged from disappointment with the Pope to totally dismissal of the idea that Benedict could have in any way covered up cases of sex abuse by priests. And there were a few people who reacted angrily and absolutely refused to talk to a reporter.

HANSEN: You mentioned what Cardinal Sodano said today. But how - the Vatican as a whole, how is it reacting to this entire controversy?

POGGIOLI: Well, as I said, I think it's circling the wagons. For several days the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has been lashing out at the international media, accusing it of fanning the scandal with its reports of cases of pedophile priests and bishops who did not believe victims accounts and did not report the crimes to police.

Today's edition said the Pope has become the target of what it called the despicable campaign of defamation. And The New York Times has been singled out in particular for its articles on the case of a Wisconsin priest accused of sexually abusing some 200 deaf children, from 1950 to 1974.

But, you know, more and more revelations are coming out every day from many European countries - not just Ireland and Germany - but also from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and here in Italy at the Vatican's doorstep.

HANSEN: During Good Friday ceremonies, the Pope's preacher ignited another controversy angering Jewish leaders. He compared the attacks on the Pope to anti-Semitism. And there's an update...

(Soundbite of laughter)

POGGIOLI: Yeah, well, the words in the sermon by the Pope's personal confessor, Raniero Cantalamessa, infuriated many Jewish leaders. Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said the remarks were particularly offensive because they had been made on Good Friday - the day that for centuries, Christians prayed for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

The comparison caused such an embarrassment for the Vatican that the official spokesman had to appear on TV to say the analogy did not reflect the Holy See's official position. But this distancing was another sign of disarray because the sermon had already appeared in its entirety on the front page of the Vatican newspaper.

And today, Father Cantalamessa himself apologized and said he did not want to hurt the sensitivities of Jews.

HANSEN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Sylvia, thank you very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane.

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