Parishioners at Santa Susanna, a baroque gem of a Catholic church that has served as the American national church in Rome since the 1920s, were surprised by a prayer said at Palm Sunday mass. Mixed in with invocations for the victims of earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, came a prayer "for all the victims of child abuse."
"This is the first time I heard a prayer for the abused at the church," said Jack Zaleweski, an American security consultant who lives in Rome and regularly attends services at Santa Susanna, which opened 1603.
There was no other acknowledgment during the mass of the abuse scandal shaking the Roman Catholic Church around the world.
But the one mention seemed momentous enough, given that Santa Susanna's titular cardinal priest is Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who was a key figure in the infamous sex-abuse scandals in the U.S. church. He resigned his position in 2002, after being accused of moving abusive priests from parish to parish without notifying police or even disciplining them, and now lives in Rome.
The abuse scandals cast a pall over the start of the Holy Week, the most solemn week in the Catholic calendar, and present one of the most serious challenges for the Vatican in many decades.
In an open-air mass before thousands in St. Peter's Square, Pope Benedict XVI alluded to the crisis by saying, "From God comes the courage not to be intimidated by petty gossip."
The reference was apparently meant to convey the message that the Vatican is unfairly under siege from the media and critics who say the church in general, and the previous and current popes in particular, moved too slowly to protect the many thousands of victims of sexual abuse.
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."
The church crisis - which has spread from North America to Europe - shows little signs of easing. Abuse cases have recently surfaced in Brazil, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the Pope's native Germany.
Some victims' groups have called for the 82-year-old pontiff to resign - a suggestion dismissed by church leaders such as Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. "No, the Pope won't resign," he told a BBC television show yesterday.
"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."
But even some in the clergy think the Vatican did not go far enough to deal with the scandal.
Sister Josephine Sim, a Singaporean who is a member of Canossian Sisters Order, said she has not lost her faith in the church and thinks there is some "hype" in the media coverage of the crisis. But she said that "they [Vatican officials]could have been more nosy and gone further, and talked to the victims more ... The abusers have to be punished properly."
The scandals first erupted in North America. In the late 1980s, allegations surfaced of sexual and physical abuse by members of the Christian Brothers, an Irish Catholic order that ran the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland; the abuse involved some 300 pupils.
About the same time, the treatment of Canada's indigenous children in boarding schools, most of them run by churches between the late 1800s and 1996, were becoming well known. In 2006, the Canadian government reached a $2-billion settlement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, with the Assembly of First Nations. Last year a delegation of Canadian victims had a private audience with the Pope and received an apology from the church for its role in the abuse.
In the United States, abuse allegations resulted in the arrest of hundreds of priests and the resignation of Cardinal Law.
In Europe, the abuse epicentre is Ireland. A week ago, Pope Benedict issued a long-awaited apology to the victims of clerical abuse there. Two Irish bishops have resigned and Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of the Irish Catholic church, may be the next to go. He has been hit with more than 200 civil actions from victims who alleged he failed to protect them from pedophile priests. (There is no suggestion that he took part in the abuse.)
Italy itself may be on the verge of an Ireland-style crisis: In February, the Vatican opened a probe into allegations that 67 former pupils at a school for the deaf in Verona, were abused between the 1950s and the 1980s. Victims of abuse elsewhere are reportedly preparing to come forward with their stories.
On Saturday, a Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged that the way the church responds to the abuse scandal is "crucial for its moral credibility."
His comments indicated that the Vatican is now looking at the scandal as a way to purify itself so that it can emerge renewed and strengthened. He pointed to the action taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after the clerical abuse scandal erupted there in 2002, instituting tough norms to protect children.