05/17/2010 07:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thousands Show Up To Support Beleaguered Pope

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) More than 150,000 people filled St. Peter's Square on Sunday (May 16), to show support for Pope Benedict XVI after months of controversy over clergy sex abuse.

The unusually high turnout, which the Vatican estimated at 200,000, came in spite of unseasonably rainy and chilly weather. Buses and trains organized by a consortium of Italian Catholic groups brought people from all over Italy to hear the pope's weekly recitation of the Regina Coeli prayer.

Banners hanging around the square bore slogans such as "Together with the pope."

Benedict has been the target of charges that, as an archbishop and cardinal, he personally mishandled cases of pedophile priests. Organizers portrayed Sunday's event not as a reaction to outside attacks, but as a gesture of solidarity with the pope's efforts to purify the church.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops conference, offered a prayer for sex abuse victims shortly before the pope's appearance.

Benedict, echoing remarks he made a few days earlier, emphasized the church's responsibility for the crisis over clerical sex abuse.

"The real enemy to be feared and fought is sin, spiritual evil," Benedict said, "which at times, unfortunately, also infects members of the church."