Italy's foreign minister has rushed to Pope Benedict XVI's defense, while Italian newspapers labeled foreign media reports as "attacks" for questioning what the pontiff might have known about pedophile clergy.
Europe has been rocked in recent months by a flood of allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, leading some rank-and-file Catholics to question the traditional chummy relationship between the Vatican and Italian institutions.
"There is too much bad-mouthing of the church and of the pope," Santina Giacomini said in her dry-cleaning shop, where Vatican priests' cassocks hung from the racks. "On the other hand, everything you hear about the scandal makes you think" about the Vatican's role in the abuse.
Even a top Vatican official has complained that a "culture of silence" in Italy may have masked sexual abuse by clergy in what is effectively the Vatican's backyard.
But in a country that lives largely off the throngs of tourists coming to see the pope -- such as crowds in Rome for this week's Holy Week ceremonies at the Vatican -- Italian politicians predictably have rallied to defend the pontiff in the face of U.S. and German news reports that Benedict allegedly allowed a pedophile priest to do pastoral work while he was Munich archbishop.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini denounced as "scandalous and shameful" the allegations that the German-born pontiff might have failed to protect parishioners on his watch.
Senate President Renato Schifani called the "attacks on the pope unacceptable and unworthy."
The church plays an important role in a country chronically short on public services for children, from nursery schools to recreation programs to summer day care. Generations of boys and girls have spent countless hours kicking soccer balls or romping in playgrounds, gardens and auditoriums run by neighborhood priests.
But the political class might be out of touch with some of their rank-and-file citizens.
The Catholic voter bloc in Italy is "absolutely not" what it was immediately after World War II, when Christian Democrats dominated Italian politicians, said Frank Coppa, a historian and professor at St. John's University, New York, who has studied the papacy as an institution.
"I don't know if they reflect the broad" populace anymore, Coppa said in a telephone interview Monday.
And while Italian media referred to the foreign media scrutiny as "attacks," citizens were less critical.
"The foreign press is simply stating the truth, something that never happens in Italy when it comes to the Catholic Church," said 23-year-old Florence sales clerk Valentina Cappellucci, sitting Tuesday on the steps of a Jesuit church in Rome.
Meanwhile, mainstream Italian media have largely ignored the trial in Rome of an Italian priest accused of sexually abusing seven boys.
"While there are priests in prison, and priests on trial, (and) certainly the phenomenon in Italy is very much widespread, part of this phenomenon lies buried by these attitudes toward the church," Nino Marazzita, a lawyer who represents two of the boys, told Associated Press Television News Tuesday.
The Vatican's own "prosecutor" for clergy sex abuse, Maltese prelate Monsignor Charles Scicluna, recently acknowledged that he was "worried about a certain culture of silence that I see as still too widespread" in Italy.
Tourist Maria Pelosi, 66, agreed Italy should look more closely at its own, but said officials from the government, and not the church, should take the lead.
"Not church inspectors, but inspectors from other states and above all Italy should investigate to bring out what happened and not try to stay silent like it (the church) has always been," said Pelosi, who was visiting Rome on Tuesday from the southern Italian region of Puglia.
Associated Press writer Daniela Petroff and Elisa Bailey contributed to this report.