, CASTEL GANDOLFO, Apr 5 – Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged Monday the Roman Catholic Church is in "times of difficulty" but avoided direct comment on sex abuse, as the Vatican faced fresh criticism over the scandal.
After a series of paedophile priest revelations which have cast a pall over the holiest week in the Christian calendar, the embattled pontiff spoke of priests\’ special responsibility to society in an Easter Monday prayer.
Benedict told hundreds of followers at Castel Gandolfo near Rome that "the loving presence (of Christ) accompanies the church on its path and supports it in times of difficulty".
"Priests, ministers of Christ, have a special responsibility", said the 82-year-old pontiff, appearing calm and smiling, adding that they should be "messengers of victory over evil and death".
Many of the assembled worshippers waved banners of support.
But Benedict again kept mum on the abuse scandals, which have reached the pope himself with claims that he helped shield predator priests when head of the Vatican department charged with disciplining them and as archbishop of Munich.
Large-scale paedophile scandals have rocked the Irish, Austrian, Swiss, German and US churches in recent days.
The Vatican has largely adopted a strategy of blaming the media for playing up the paedophile revelations.
Top prelates closed ranks around the pope on Easter Sunday, with the dean of the Vatican\’s College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, saying in an unusual gesture that "the people of God are with you" and would ignore "idle chatter".
On Friday the pope\’s personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, evoked a parallel between attacks on the pope and anti-Semitism — remarks for which he later apologised after condemnation by Jewish groups and abuse victims.
Experts said however that the Vatican\’s approach was a sign of weakness, and added that the Church needed to take responsibility for the scandal and to adopt urgent reform.
The pope and the Church must "leave their bunker and their siege mentality" to "resolve the questions posed by this grave crisis", Giancarlo Zizola, a Vatican commentator at Italy\’s La Repubblica newspaper, told AFP.
Instead of blaming the media and forces presumed hostile to the Church, as Cardinal Sodano did on Sunday, "the Church should instead recognise its role", he said.
Another Vatican expert, Bruno Bartoloni, said Cantalamessa\’s comments about anti-semititism on Good Friday "gave the impression of a Vatican that was losing the plot a bit".
Criticism of the Vatican\’s handling of the scandals continued, with the Spanish parliament\’s socialist president Jose Bono accusing it of a "clumsy" response.
"The Church hierarchy is behaving clumsily by not stating clearly that a few rotten apples don\’t spoil the whole barrel," said Bono, himself a Catholic, when he appeared on Spanish television.
He also questioned the enforcement of celibacy in the priesthoood.
A retired French bishop meanwhile said it was a mistake to take a convicted Canadian paedophile priest into his diocese in the 1980s but "back then, that\’s how the church operated."
"We were being helpful. We were asked to take in an undesirable priest and we agreed," Jacques Gaillot, the former bishop of Evreux, west of Paris, said in an interview to Le Parisien newspaper.
In 1987, Gaillot agreed to take in Canadian priest Denis Vadeboncoeur, two years after he was sentenced to 20 months in prison by a Canadian court for sexually assaulting children.