By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, facing one of the gravest crises of his pontificate as a sexual abuse scandal sweeps the Church, indicated on Sunday that his faith would give him the courage not to be intimidated by critics.
The 82-year-old pontiff led tens of thousands of people in a sunny St. Peter's Square in a Palm Sunday service at the start of Holy Week events commemorating the last days in Jesus's life.
While he did not directly mention the scandal involving sexual abuse of children by priests, parts of his sermon could be applicable to the crisis he and the Roman Catholic Church are facing.
The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one "toward the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion."
He also spoke of how man can sometimes "fall to the lowest, vulgar levels" and "sink into the swamp of sin and dishonesty."
One prayer read at the Mass asked God to help "the young and those who work to educate and protect them," which Vatican Radio said was intended to "sum up the feelings of the Church at this difficult time when it confronts the plague of pedophilia."
As the scandal has convulsed the Church in the United States and Europe, the Vatican has gone on the offensive, attacking the media for what it called an "ignoble attempt" to smear Pope Benedict and his top advisers "at any cost."
In London, the archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, told the BBC: "The pope won't resign. Frankly, there's no strong reason for him to do so. In fact it's the other way around: he is the one above all else in Rome who has tackled these things head on."
On Saturday, the Vatican's chief spokesman acknowledged that the Church's response to cases of sexual abuse by priests is crucial to its credibility and it must "acknowledge and make amends for" even decades-old cases.
CREDIBILITY AT STAKE
"The nature of this issue is bound to attract media attention and the way the Church responds is crucial for its moral credibility," the Vatican's chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said on Vatican Radio.
Although the cases cited happened long ago, "even decades ago, acknowledging them and making amends to the victims is the price for re-establishing justice and looking to the future with renewed vigor, humility and confidence," Lombardi said.
Sunday marked the start of a hectic week during which the pope presides over seven major events leading up to Easter.
But while Catholics around the world commemorate Christ's passion, the 1.1 billion member Church is reeling from media reports on abuse that have led to the pope's doorstep.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up in the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from the 1950s to the 1960s, after the New York Times reported he was not defrocked although the case was made known to the Vatican and to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Church's top doctrinal official, now Pope Benedict.
The Vatican also said that the pope, while archbishop of Munich in 1980, was not involved in the decision by a subordinate to allow a priest who had been transferred there to undergo therapy for sexual abuse to return later to pastoral duties.
The European epicenter of the scandal is Ireland, where two bishops have resigned over their handling of abuse cases years ago. Three others have offered their resignation and there have been calls for the head of the Irish Church, Cardinal Sean Brady, to step down.
Brady said over the weekend that a priest in Northern Ireland had been asked to take a period of leave following concerns over child safety. He said the priest's absence from his ministry would allow an investigation by civil authorities.
In Geneva, Swiss President Doris Leuthard called for a central register of pedophile priests to prevent them from having further contact with children.
Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, in defense of the pope, told ORF Austrian television on Sunday that Benedict wanted a full probe when former Vienna Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer was removed in 1995 for alleged sexual abuse of a boy.
But other Curia officials persuaded then Pope John Paul that the media had exaggerated the case and an inquiry would only create more bad publicity.
"He told me, 'the other side won'," Schoenborn said.
(Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby in London, Jonathan Lynn in Geneva and Tom Heneghan in Paris; editing by Paul Casciato)