Vatican City » It was the Catholic calendar's holiest moment -- the Mass celebrating the resurrection of Christ. But with Pope Benedict XVI accused of failing to protect children from abusive priests, Easter Sunday also was a high-profile opportunity to play defense.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God," Cardinal Angelo Sodano told the pontiff, whom victims of clergy sexual abuse accuse of helping to shape and perpetuate a climate of cover-up. Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, dismissed those claims as "petty gossip."
The ringing tribute at the start of a Mass attended by tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square marked an unusual departure from the Vatican's Easter rituals, infusing the tradition-steeped religious ceremony with an air of a papal pep rally.
Dressed in gold robes and shielded from a cool drizzle by a canopy, Benedict looked weary during much of the Mass, the highlight of a heavy Holy Week schedule. But as he listened intently to Sodano's paean, a smile broke across the pope's face, and when the cardinal finished speaking, Benedict rose from his chair in front of the altar to embrace him.
The pontiff hasn't responded to accusations that he did too little to protect children from pedophile priests, even as sex abuse scandals threaten to overshadow his papacy. Sodano's praise for Benedict as well as the church's 400,000 priests worldwide cranked up a vigorous campaign by the Holy See to counter what it calls a "vile" smear operation orchestrated by anti-Vatican media aimed at weakening the papacy and its moral authority.
Sodano said the faithful came to "rally close around you, successor to [St.] Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the holy church" amid the joy of Easter.
"We are deeply grateful to you for the strength of spirit and apostolic courage with which you announce the Gospel," said Sodano, who sought to assure Benedict that the scandals were not costing him credibility among his flock.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not allow themselves to be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials which sometimes buffet the community of believers," Sodano said.
The cardinal also rushed to the defense of all the Catholic priests who "generously serve the people of God, in parishes, recreation centers, schools, hospitals and many other places, as well as in the missions in the most remote parts of the world."
Benedict, who turns 83 on April 16, was holding up well against the campaign of "deceitful accusations" against him, Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola said in an interview on Italian state TV on Sunday.
Washington » President Barack Obama and his family marked the Easter holiday by attending a music-filled service at a historically black Methodist church in southeast Washington, an area that was rocked by violence last week.
A boisterous crowd of more than 1,000 people welcomed the Obamas on Sunday at the Allen Chapel AME Church. Joining him at the service were his wife, Michelle, daughters Sasha and Malia, and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson. Also attending were the mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, and his wife.
Muenster, Germany » Police say a man attacked the Roman Catholic Bishop of Muenster with a broom handle during an Easter service in the city's cathedral. Police said in a statement Sunday that 60-year-old bishop Felix Genn defended himself with an incense bowl and was unharmed.
The 44-year-old man's motive was unclear but comes as Germany's Catholic Church is facing itense criticism over the widening abuse scandal.