ROME, March 29, 2010 -- Facing the most serious crisis since Pope Benedict XVI took office, officials inside the Vatican describe the recent focus on the pope and abuse as unexpected and unfair in light of recent efforts to prevent such abuse.
"We have really understood what a terrible crime and sin the sexual abuse of minors is and we will really do all that is needed to avoid this in the future," Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told ABC News.
"We have to protect children in every place, particularly in educational institutions, and I think the church is aware of this and is already on the right path to avoid [abuse]."
Today, the Vatican's version of a chief prosecutor, who is in charge of investigating crimes within the church, including child abuse by priests, told ABC News that every allegation is taken seriously, but that accusations of a cover-up by the Vatican are "false and unjustified."
Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says the Vatican has investigated 3,000 of the most serious cases of abuse – and handed out punishment in every one, ranging from dismissal to forced resignation to other disciplinary measures.
He called the idea that the pope himself would know what every priest is doing "a myth."
Surrounded by tens of thousands of faithful on Palm Sunday, Pope Benedict made a veiled but defiant reference to the crisis.
"Faith gives us the courage not to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion," he told worshipers in his homily.
Defending Pope Benedict in Sexual Abuse Crisis
In the U.S., New York's archbishop, Timothy Dolan, gave a more spirited defense, praising Pope Benedict as exactly the leader the church needs.
"Certain sources seem almost frenzied to implicate the man who perhaps more than anybody else has been the leader in purification, reform and renewal," said Dolan.
The endorsement met with loud applause in New York's St. Patrick's cathedral.
Despite recent outrage, the Vatican insists it is doing all it can to fight sexual abuse. It says an audit by U.S. bishops found that accusations dropped a third last year -- and virtually all reported cases were from decades ago.