Pope Benedict XVI opened Holy Week on Sunday amid one of the most serious crises facing the church in decades, with questions about his handling of cases of paedophile priests and the Vatican acknowledging its “moral credibility” was on the line.

Pope Benedict made no mention of the scandal in his Palm Sunday homily. But one of the prayers, recited in Portuguese during Mass, was “for the young and for those charged with educating them and protecting them.”

Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and is the start of the church’s Holy Week, which includes the Good Friday re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion and death and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

This year, the most solemn week on the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar has been stained by a clerical abuse scandal that has spread across Europe to the pope’s native Germany. The Vatican has been on the defensive amid mounting questions about the pope’s handling of sex abuse cases both when he was archbishop of Munich and when he headed the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (as the Pope was known before his elevation) was Munich archbishop when a priest was allowed to resume pastoral work with children even while receiving therapy for paedophilia. He was subsequently convicted of abusing minors. In addition, a case has come to light in which Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation told Wisconsin bishops to squash a church trial for a priest alleged to have abused up to 200 hearing-impaired boys.

The Vatican insists Cardinal Ratzinger was unaware of the Munich priest’s move to the pastoral job and has defended its handling of the Wisconsin case.

Pope Benedict has only publicly spoken out about the scandal in Ireland, writing a letter to the Irish faithful last week in which he chastised Irish bishops for leadership shortcomings and errors in judgment for failing to apply church law to stop abusive priests.

During his homily on Sunday, the Pope directed himself to young people, as Palm Sunday is traditionally dedicated to the young. He reminded them that Christian life is a path, or pilgrimage, with Christ — “A walk in the direction that he has chosen and shows us.”

Christ, he said, guides the faithful “toward the courage that doesn’t let us be intimidated by the chatting of dominant opinions, towards patience that supports others.”

On Saturday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged that the way the church responds to the abuse scandal is “crucial for its moral credibility.”

He noted that most of the cases that have come to light recently occurred decades ago.

“But recognising them, and making amends to the victims, is the price of re-establishing justice and ‘purifying memories’ that will let us look with renewed commitment together with humility and trust in the future,” he said in a statement on Vatican Radio.

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.

The head of the German bishops’ conference has said the Vatican was compiling information from various bishops’ conferences around the world with the possible aim of setting out new guidelines for dealing with the problem.

Separately on Sunday, a retired Italian cardinal and one-time candidate for the papacy said in comments published in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse that celibacy for priests should be reconsidered.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan and considered one of the more liberal-leaning princes of the church, was quoted as saying that mandatory chastity for churchmen should be thought over to prevent further abuse cases by clergy and help the church regain lost trust.

The Vatican has rejected suggestions that celibacy caused the abuse and Pope Benedict has reaffirmed it as a gift to God as recently as this month.

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