VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI opened Holy Week on Sunday amid one of the most serious crises facing the church in decades, with protesters in London demanding he resign and calls in Switzerland for a central registry for pedophile priests.
Benedict made no direct 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."
Jesus Christ, Benedict said in his homily, guides the faithful "toward the courage that doesn't let us be intimidated by the chatting of dominant opinions, towards patience that supports others."
Palm Sunday commemorates 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.
In London on Sunday, a few dozen people gathered outside Westminster Cathedral to demand the pope resign. Demonstrators carried placards saying "Pope? Nope!" and "Don't Turn a Blind Eye."
The Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols insisted the pope wouldn't – and shouldn't – quit. "In fact, it is the other way around," he told BBC television. "He is the one above all else in Rome that has tackled this thing head on."
In Austria, where several cases have come out in recent weeks, the archbishop of Vienna announced the creation of a church-funded but clergy-free and independent commission to look into Austrian abuse claims.
It will be run by a woman, the former governor of Styria province, and is not meant to take the place of a possible state-run investigative commission, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn told public broadcaster ORF on Sunday.
And in Switzerland, Swiss President Doris Leuthard told the weekly SonntagsZeitung that Switzerland should consider creating a central registry of pedophile priests to prevent them from coming into contact with more children.
Church leaders say about 60 people have reported to be victims of priest abuse in Switzerland.
"It doesn't make any difference if the perpetrators are from the secular or spiritual world. Both violate Swiss law," she said. "It's important that pedophile priests, like teachers and other guardians, don't come into contact with children."
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.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Munich archbishop when a priest was allowed to resume pastoral work with children even while receiving therapy for pedophilia. He was subsequently convicted of abusing minors. In addition, a case has come to light in which Ratzinger's deputy at the Congregation told Wisconsin bishops to quash a church trial for a priest alleged to have abused up to 200 deaf boys.
The Vatican insists Ratzinger was unaware of the Munich priest's move to the pastoral job and has defended its handling of the Wisconsin case.
Schoenborn, a close Benedict confidante, defended the pope against suggestions that he was behind church cover-ups, including for the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. The Austrian church was rocked by allegations in 1995 that Groer molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s.
Schoenborn replaced Groer as archbishop in 1995; but it wasn't until 1998 that, on Vatican orders, Groer relinquished all religious duties and sought exile in Germany. He died in Austria in 2003.
At the time, the Vatican drew sharp criticism from many Austrians for taking three years to act against Groer. Disgust over how the case was handled has been cited as contributing to the exodus of disaffected Austrians from the church.
Schoenborn said Ratzinger had immediately pushed for an investigative commission when abuse allegations against Groer arose. However, others in the Vatican – described by Schoenborn as the "diplomatic track" – did not let this happen.
"I can still very clearly remember the moment when Cardinal Ratzinger sadly told me that the other camp had asserted itself," Schoenborn told ORF.
"To accuse him of being someone who covers things up – having known the pope for many years, I can say that is certainly not true," he added.
Benedict has only publicly spoken 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.
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."
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.
Separately 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 Benedict has reaffirmed it as a gift to God as recently as this month.
Associated Press Writer Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna contributed to this report.