As tourists and the faithful congregated in St Peter's Square to collect Palm Sunday olive branches, an embattled Pope Benedict XVI was coming under mounting pressure to call an emergency synod of bishops from around the world to hammer out a new strategy for dealing with the worsening child abuse scandal.

Vatican sources say a number of Catholic prelates have strongly urged the Holy See to hold such an extraordinary conference on the grounds that the German Pontiff and the Vatican evidently cannot cope effectively on their own with the spiralling image crisis.

"There is a deep feeling of unease in the Vatican at the moment," said one well-placed source in the Holy See.

"Senior people in the Curia feel under siege from parts of the international media as they see it trying to nail the Pope for allegedly covering up or mishandling abuse cases.

"Many bishops have let it be known they want Benedict to convene a special synod or worldwide conference of bishops to examine the problem because of a growing feeling that the Vatican cannot handle this."

The source added: "There is a realisation that the scandal is not going to stop. It is not one country or five countries but an increasing number."

Benedict has resignation letters from three Irish bishops sitting on his desk in the Apostolic Palace.

Even as he considers them, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, the primate of all Ireland, is considering whether to resign.

In his St Patrick's day homily he said he would reflect on his decision between now and Easter.

The three bishops, James Moriarty, Raymond Field and Eamonn Walsh, tendered their resignations after the publication of the Murphy report into abuse.

"It is quite possible that Brady will resign," said one Vatican insider. "He could go with his head held high and if he goes, others would follow."

Vatican sources poured scorn on the suggestion on Saturday by German magazine Der Spiegel that Benedict might consider resigning over the affair.

But in addition to the damage to the image of the church from the scandals, described as a catastrophe by some senior Vatican officials, Benedict will celebrate his 83rd birthday on April 16, and papal advisers are concerned about the effect the stress from handling the crisis may have on his health as he braces himself for another round of tiring public appearances celebrating Easter.

Before last Christmas, papal doctors told the Pontiff, who suffered two minor strokes before his election, to slow down, persuading him to slim down his gruelling Christmas schedule and prohibiting him from making any more tiring long-haul foreign trips.

The Vatican media and its tiny press office have gone into overdrive to fend off criticism of Benedict himself for his record during his period as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982 and as head of the Holy Office from 1982 to 2005.

Benedict has received messages of support from around the world, with many commentators pointing out that from the start of his pontificate he made it clear he intended to clean out what he termed emphatically "the filth" in the church, marking himself out as the first occupant of St Peter's throne publicly to declare war on sexual abuse by paedophile priests.

The Vatican's insistence that coverage in the United States by the New York Times and other newspapers of the case of the American priest Lawrence Murphy has been biased has found considerable resonance among many hardened veterans of the Holy See press corps.

They feel the Pope's chief spokesman Father Lombardi, a Jesuit who is also head of Vatican Radio, made a fair point by underlining that the late priest's alleged abuse of 200 deaf schoolboys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dated back to the period from the 1950s to the 1970s and was only brought to the attention of the Vatican in 1996 when Murphy was dying and his case had been legally proscribed by judicial authorities in the US.

In a bid to bolster the church's flagging image, the extraordinary synod of bishops would examine issues that critics say were missing from the Pope's pastoral letter to the Irish church last weekend, especially what new administrative penalties, including removal, should be adopted to discipline bishops who cover up abuse.

The culture of secrecy is seen not only as bad in itself, but as something that may have encouraged abuse because priests knew they might be shielded from the full rigours of the law.

Church abuse scandals
United States: More than US$2 billion ($2.84 billion) paid out by the church to victims of abuse. Latest scandal involves church's failure to discipline Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused as many as 200 boys at a school for the deaf.

Ireland: Cardinal Sean Brady was present at meetings more than 30 years ago where children claiming they had been abused were forced to sign vows of secrecy. Bishop John Magee of Cloyne was accused of mishandling claims of abuse in his diocese. He later resigned.

Italy: At a school for deaf in Verona, 67 ex-pupils described sexual abuse and beatings over 30 years.

Germany: About 300 claims of child abuse by church officers. Investigations ongoing in 18 of Germany's 27 dioceses.

Netherlands: Bishops ordered an inquiry into 200 abuse cases.

There are further cases in recent years in Australia, Austria, Brazil, France and Switzerland.

- INDEPENDENT