* 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 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
(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti in Rome; Editing by Jon