VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict led the world's Catholics into Easter with the holiest day of the liturgical calendar clouded by persistent allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests.
The 82-year-old pope presided at an Easter Eve service that began late on Saturday night in St Peter's Basilica. During the service, he received six adult converts into the Church and administered the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation to them.
Wearing gold vestments and looking tired, he weaved his sermon around the theme of eternal life.
In the past three days of Holy Week services he has made no reference to the scandal that has sorely hurt the Church's image around the world, particularly in Europe and the United States.
The celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday have been clouded by accusations the Church in several countries mishandled and covered up episodes of sexual abuse of children by priests, some dating back decades.
Shaken by the crisis, the Vatican has accused the media of attempting to smear 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 he was not defrocked.
There is keen anticipation to see if the pope addresses the accusations on Easter Sunday when he makes his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address in St Peter's Square.
This year, Easter and the Jewish Passover fell in the same week.
But the coincidence was marred when the pope's personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, said in a Good Friday sermon that attacks on the Catholic Church and the pope over the sexual abuse scandal were comparable to "collective violence" against Jews.
Jewish leaders around the world used words like repugnant, obscene, and offensive to describe the sermon, particularly, as Rome's chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni noted, it came on the day that for centuries Christians prayed for the conversion of the Jews, who were held collectively responsible for Jesus' death.
"How can you compare the collective guilt assigned to the Jews which caused the deaths of tens of millions of innocent people to perpetrators who abuse their faith and their calling by sexually abusing children?" demanded Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the international Jewish rights group.
The Vatican's newspaper continued its campaign against the media for reports on alleged cover-ups of sexual abuse of children by priests, saying the pope had become the target of "despicable campaign of defamation."
It also denounced what it called a "crude campaign against the pope and Catholics."
In London, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams, said the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost all its credibility over its response to the sex abuse scandals after an apology by the pope about abuse in Ireland that had disappointed victims.
Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Paul Casciato