Senior Catholic officials have apologised and asked for forgiveness as they sought to repair the damage caused by the sex abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church.

In Austria and Switzerland archbishops and bishops marked the start of Easter by appealing to parishioners to come forward with their allegations, and admitting to past mistakes when dealing with claims.

A spokesman for Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the international scandal over sex abuse by priests is a “test for him and the church”, but the papal response mingled contrition with forthright defiance. Vatican officials have become increasingly outspoken in their defence of the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy's behaviour towards victims and offenders.

On Thursday, a Vatican spokesman took aim at the New York Times, which has published a series of explosive stories on what the Pope may or may not have known about a cover-up involving a paedophile priest. Cardinal William Levada, who succeeded the Pope as head of the doctrinal department, accused the newspaper of going into “attack mode” in its coverage of the Pope and said it should “give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on”.

The Archbishop of Vienna, who caused a storm last month by suggesting that priestly celibacy may be to blame for paedophilia in the church, led a service at St Stephen's cathedral in Vienna on Wednesday night, where people vented their fury at the church.

At a mass held for victims, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn listened to accounts of sexual abuse or physical punishment in Catholic institutions.

Afterwards he acknowledged that some individuals in the church exploited their position, were sexually violent and placed the reputation of the church above everything else.

“Some of us have talked about the gracious God and yet done evil to those who were entrusted to them. Some of us have used sexual violence ... some of us have robbed boys and girls of their childhood. For some of us, the church's immaculate appearance was more important than anything else.

“We confess our guilt to the many whom we have wronged as a church, and whom some of us have wronged very directly.” Earlier this week it was revealed that an Austrian abuse phoneline had received 566 separate abuse claims since its launch in January. Local reports said a quarter related to sexual abuse, another quarter involved physical abuse and the remaining number required further investigation.

Last weekend, amid growing public disquiet over the ability of the church to investigate its own priests, Cardinal Schonborn announced an independent commission to examine historic cases.

There are fears that the scandal in Austria could lead to a record number of defections that would exceed the 2009 figure, when 53,000 people left the church.

Across the border in Switzerland bishops confessed to underestimating the scale of the abuse and apologised for their failings. A statement from the Swiss bishops' conference said: “We humbly admit that we underestimated the extent of the situation. Those in charge of the diocese and religious orders made mistakes.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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