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Cardinal Issues Strong Defense of Pope at Easter Service

A top Roman Catholic cleric has defended Pope Benedict's handling of an ongoing pedophile priest scandal, in a tribute heard by tens of thousands of pilgrims in Rome to celebrate Easter Sunday.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano told the pope the church should not be influenced by what he called "petty gossip" about the scandal. Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, also referred to the pontiff's "unfailing" leadership and courage in addressing the abuse crisis.

Benedict himself made no reference to the crisis Sunday in his twice-yearly Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) address, which touched on a number of global problems.

However, bishops in Belgium and Germany have openly criticized the Vatican for failing to come to terms with the crisis and for failing to help its victims. Last week, Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called the church response to the scandal "hopelessly inadequate."

Elsewhere Sunday, tens of millions of Christians across the globe celebrated Easter, which commemorates the biblical resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion. The holiest day of the Christian calendar was celebrated this year by both Catholic and Orthodox followers on the same day.

Thousands of pilgrims flocked to the Holy Land for services Sunday. Bells at Jerusalem's revered Church of the Holy Sepluchre called worshippers to a Mass celebrated by Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal. Russian news reports say some 3.5 million people attended Orthodox services in Moscow and other Russian cities.

The crisis over pedophile priests intensified last week, when the pope's personal preacher evoked comparisons between crisis-driven attacks on the pontiff and historical attacks on Jews.

Jewish groups and those representing abuse victims immediately condemned the remarks of Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who issued a public apology Sunday for his remarks.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.