Pope Benedict XVI marked Good Friday, the Christian world's most solemn day, with the Roman Catholic Church under a dark cloud battling paedophile priest scandals.

With new cases being reported almost daily, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Pope's vicar for Rome, told Vatican Radio that it was a "moment of suffering" for the Church.

Benedict, 82, is to hold a special service at St Peter's Basilica before presiding over a traditional procession at Rome's Colosseum re-enacting Jesus Christ's final hours and crucifixion.

Since 2008, Benedict has not completed the Way of The Cross walk, taking up the wooden cross only at the very end of the dramatic ritual attended by thousands of pilgrims carrying candles.

Catholic bishops have sought to rally around the pope ahead of the Easter weekend commemorations, which have increased the spotlight on the Vatican's actions.

The leader of Germany's Roman Catholic bishops, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, said in a special message that Good Friday must "mark a new departure which we so badly need."

The German church has been thrown into crisis as dozens of people have come forward alleging they were abused as minors by priests. Most cases date back several years.

The abuse cases fill the hearts of Catholics with "pain, fear, and shame," Zollitsch said.

He said Catholics were were aware of the "pain which has been inflicted on victims who often, for decades, were unable to express their pain in words."

In his own archdiocese of Friburg, the church prepared a special prayer for victims to be said during Good Friday services.

"Pray for the children and the young who, in the middle of the people of God and in the Church community, were wronged, abused and wounded in their body and soul," said the prayer.

The child abuse scandal has engulfed much of Europe and the United States, drawing in the Vatican for harsh criticism over its handling of the affair.

Yesterday, France became the latest European country to implicate paedophile priests, one accused of sexual aggression against a boy in 1992 and 1993 and another suspected of possessing pornographic images of minors.

But while acknowledging the abuse, many Church leaders say the pope has been unfairly targeted.

Ruini told Vatican Radio: "There are two motives of suffering that are together: suffering for the faults of the children of the Church, in particular of priests, and suffering because of this hostile will to the Church."

The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano last week denounced what it called an "ignoble attempt" to smear the pope and his closest aides "at all costs."

Pope Benedict has come under intense pressure with allegations that, as archbishop of Munich and later as the chief Vatican enforcer of Catholic doctrine and morals, he failed to act against priests accused of child abuse.

For the Church, this "is the hardest moment since the publication of the 'Humanae Vitae' (Of Human Life) by Paul VI in 1968," Vatican expert Bruno Bartoloni told AFP, referring to a papal encyclical that attacked use of the birth control pill as a mortal sin.

"At that time the crisis was as deep, with personal attacks against the pope and the Church in general," Bartoloni said.

The pontiff received a boost from the head of the US Church who praised Benedict's record in introducing measures to combat paedophile priests.

"It was Pope Benedict who gave us, in different ways, the ability to handle this crisis more quickly and in a way that helps to heal," Chicago Archbishop Francis George told Vatican Radio.

Archbishop George said that when the pope was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he "enabled us to keep the predators out of the priesthood permanently in ways that were not possible before and... encouraged us to reach out to victims."

Pope Benedict headed the body which is responsible for disciplining priests from 1981 to 2005.

Tomorrow, Pope Benedict will hold an Easter vigil in St Peter's Square, where he will also celebrate Easter mass on Sunday to be followed by his "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing.

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