* Cardinal strongly defends pope at start of Easter mass
* Unprecedented defence indicates Vatican feeling pressure
* Victims group calls words “insulting”
* Pope makes no mention of abuse accusations (Adds victims’ reaction, quotes from pilgrims)
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY, April 4 (Reuters) - A leading cardinal defended Pope Benedict at an unusual address at the pontiff’s Easter Sunday Mass, saying the Church would not be intimidated by “petty gossip” about sexual abuse of children by priests.
But in his own Easter address hours later, the pope, looking at times weary, did not mention the scandal that has engulfed the Church and posed a crisis in his five-year-old pontificate.
The surprise speech by Cardinal Angelo Sodano was the first time in recent memory that the ritual of a papal Easter Sunday Mass was changed so someone could address the pope at the start.
“The people of God are with you and will not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers,” Sodano said.
The change of protocol underscored just how much the Vatican is feeling the pressure from a growing scandal concerning sexual abuse of children by priests and reports of a possible cover-up that have inched closer to the pope himself.
Later, the pope did not mention the scandal in his twice-yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) address, which touched on a series of world problems.
Sodano praised Benedict as the “solid rock” and said “The Church is with you!” to the cheers of thousands of people holding umbrellas in St Peter’s Square.
His speech of solidarity listed those who support the pope, particularly “the 400,000 priests who generously serve” in schools, hospitals and missions around the world. This was a clear attempt to underscore the Vatican’s position that only a tiny minority of priests have abused children.
VICTIMS GROUP “INSULTED”
But victims said they were disappointed.
“Lofty statements from Vatican officials do not change the facts,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
“Deeply wounded victims and our family members need comfort and healing, but instead receive reprimands and insults. When we speak up and tell how our childhood innocence was shattered by sexual assaults by priests it is not ‘petty gossip’,” she said.
Easter has been clouded by weeks of accusations the Church in several countries mishandled and covered up abuse of children by priests, sometimes for decades.
Shaken by the crisis, the Vatican has several times accused the media of waging a “despicable campaign of defamation” against the pope. Some reports have accused him of negligence in handling abuse cases in previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany, and in Rome.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from 1950 to 1974. The New York Times reported the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, were warned about Murphy, but the priest was not defrocked.
Catholics leaving the rainy square were mixed in their reaction to the pope’s silence on the issue.
“The pope should just address the crisis directly ... they should deal with it in a lawful, equitable and just manner, and they should treat victims with respect,” said Nancy Malone of the United States.
But others said Easter was a time to talk of peace and not of scandal. (Additional reporting by Antonio Denti in Rome; Editing by Jon Hemming)