VATICAN CITY — Cardinals across Europe used their Holy Thursday sermons to defend Pope Benedict XVI from accusations he played a role in covering up sex abuse scandals, and an increasingly angry Vatican sought to deflect any criticism in the Western media.
The relationship between the church and the media has become increasingly bitter as the scandal buffeting the 1 billion-member church has touched the pontiff himself. On Wednesday, the church singled out The New York Times for criticism in an unusually harsh attack.
Western news organizations, including The Associated Press, have reported extensively on the burgeoning scandal, and new details have emerged on an almost daily basis.
On Holy Thursday, Benedict first celebrated a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica dedicated to the union between the pope and the world's priests. In the late afternoon, he washed the feet of 12 priests in a ceremony symbolizing humility and commemorating Christ's Last Supper with his 12 apostles on the evening before his Good Friday crucifixion.
Although there were expectations by some that the pope would address the crisis, Benedict made no reference to the scandal at either ceremony.
Venice's Cardinal Angelo Scola expressed solidarity with Benedict in his Holy Thursday homily in the lagoon city, describing him as a victim of "deceitful accusations." He praised the pope as seeking to remove all "dirt" from the priesthood.
Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz said the church should take notice of individual tragedies and treat sex abuse cases very seriously, but at the same time, he criticized the media for "targeting the whole church, targeting the pope, and to that we must say 'no' in the name of truth and in the name of justice."
And Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, speaking of Benedict's long years as head of a Vatican office that investigates abuse, said the future pope "had a very clear line of not covering up but clearing up."
He had also reflected on the issue at a Wednesday evening service:
"I admit that I often feel a sense of injustice these days. Why is the church being excoriated? Isn't there also abuse elsewhere? ... And then I'm tempted to say: 'Yes, the media just don't like the church. Maybe there's even a conspiracy against the church?' But then I feel in my heart that no, that's not it."
The church on Wednesday presented its highest-level official response yet to one of the most explosive recent revelations regarding sex abuse — a story in the Times on the church's decision in the 1990s not to defrock a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting deaf boys.
It was the latest in a series of attacks on the press. Last week, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper denounced what it said was a "clear and despicable intention" by the media to strike at Benedict "at any cost."
On Thursday, the newspaper carried a story on its front page on German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcoming efforts to stem sex abuse, headlining "German chancellor praises the Catholic church."
In the article posted Wednesday on the Vatican's Web site, Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote: "I am not proud of America's newspaper of record, The New York Times, as a paragon of fairness."
Levada, an American, said the newspaper wrongly used the case of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy to find fault in Benedict's handling of abuse cases.
A Times spokeswoman defended the articles and said no one has cast doubt on the reported facts.
"The allegations of abuse within the Catholic church are a serious subject, as the Vatican has acknowledged on many occasions," said Diane McNulty, a spokeswoman for the Times. "Any role the current pope may have played in responding to those allegations over the years is a significant aspect of this story."
The Vatican newspaper also carried a front-page commentary to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Benedict's predecessor, the much beloved Pope John Paul II.
The article said John Paul wanted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to work by his side from the early years of his papacy. John Paul brought the archbishop of Munich to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful office that among other things investigates clerical sex abuse.