Marking the start of the Christian holy week this Palm Sunday at the Vatican, Pope Benedict encouraged followers to keep faith in Christ as a way of strengthening themselves against "intimidation," even as the pope himself had become accused of protecting priests who, in the words of one recent critic, raped and tortured children.

In his sermon, the pope did not openly acknowledge the fierce scandal that has engulfed the Vatican in recent days. Instead, he used the context of current events to promote a deeper trust in the Christian deity.

"[As a 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 squash 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."

Christianity, Pope Benedict claimed Sunday, directs believers towards "courage that doesn't let us be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion."

His recent apology for the widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests on at least two continents has been harshly criticized as an understatement.

During a Friday night broadcast, two of the most well-known atheists in American media, Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens, took particular issue with the church's inaction on the matter.

Hitchens called the pope's apology a request for "wiggle room" on the "rape and torture of children."

"It's funny because in this society... Even in prisons, there is a hierarchy of crimes," said Maher. "The child molesters are the ones who even hardened criminals shun, or actually kill."

His guest opined that questions of whether the pope will be able to travel freely will soon become pervasive. Swiss President Doris Leuthard, just one day later, called for the creation of a central register for pedophiles, equating a priest who rapes children to anyone of any other profession who commits the same act.

"Whether perpetrators come from the civil or clerical world makes no difference," she said, according to Reuters. "Both are subject to Swiss criminal law, with no ifs or buts."

"I was raised Catholic but stopped going to church at the age of 12," scoffed journalist Matt Taibbi in a recent entry for True/Slant. "I was a complete idiot at that age with regard to almost every other area of human knowledge, but even I knew back then that the church was a scam. There are good and decent people working as individual priests, but the institution as a whole is a gang of cheap charlatans preying on peoples’ guilt feelings (which of course are cultivated intentionally by the church, which teaches children to be ashamed of their natural sexuality) in order to solicit a lifetime of contributions."

He concluded: "Sooner or later people are going to catch on, the state is going to make a move, and there’s going to be a hell of a lot of church property going up for auction along with the seized Escalades of DEA-busted drug dealers. Or maybe not in this lifetime — but one can only hope."

"Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, insisted that Pope Benedict had not been weakened by the allegations, which have led some to demand his resignation five years after he was elected," The Times Online noted. "Popes are elected for life. The last pontiff to step down voluntarily was Pope Celestine V in 1294, who became a hermit."

"The hierarchy’s loss of moral authority has been wonderfully liberating for some Catholics now free to ignore, with good conscience, bishops’ various directives on gays, birth control, divorce and remarriage, etc," wrote Margery Eagan, opining for The Boston Herald. "I know many who’ve been able to separate their bedrock faith from Catholic leadership. Such Catholics support what’s good in the church (their parish, parochial schools, Catholic charities, etc.) and not what’s compromised (their archdiocese and the Vatican itself)."

Lombardi added that the pope believes the Catholic Church will come out of the present scandal -- raised over decades, affecting the lives of untold thousands who were sexually assaulted -- "stronger" than ever before. So far, the church has not turned a single pedophile priest over to civil authorities.