Cardinal Justin Rigali used a Holy Thursday Mass to thank his priests for the essential role they play in the life of the Catholic Church, and urged church members to support them in time of scandal.

"This year, our celebration takes place under difficult circumstances," Rigali told about 350 priests and others gathered at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

Since February, he has placed 29 priests on administrative leave pending an archdiocesan inquiry into allegations, some decades old, that they sexually abused minors or acted inappropriately with them.

Two of them face trial on charges of sexually assaulting a minor in the 1990s, and a third of facilitating such abuse.

"With reference to the sexual abuse of minors, we are all experiencing pain for victims of such abuse, as well as for those brother priests who are so deeply affected by the situation," Rigali said in his homily.

His remarks, before an audience of about 1,500, were his most public since a Philadelphia grand jury in February accused archdiocesan leaders of failing to investigate credible allegations against about two dozen priests.

At the close of Mass, many crowded close to the center aisle to applaud the clergy as they filed from the sanctuary.

Holy Thursday in Catholic tradition marks the day when Jesus inaugurated the priesthood at the Last Supper.

Rigali made his remarks at the morning Chrism Mass, when dioceses annually consecrate the holy oils they will use throughout the year. Diocesan priests traditionally renew their ordination pledges of chastity and obedience at the Mass.

"This is the day, dear brothers, on which . . . we are called to consecrate ourselves anew," the cardinal said from the pulpit. "Without the priesthood there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there is no church."

He also reminded the priests that they would be reaffirming their pledge of celibacy "in the solemn presence of our people, whose relationship we cherish."

After the homily he led the priests in the renewal of their commitment, asking all whether they were willing to sacrifice their own "pleasure and ambition" to bring "peace and love to your brothers and sisters."

Right palms facing forward, the 350 priests replied en masse, "I am."

At the close of the 90-minute Mass, Rigali also called on all Catholics of the archdiocese to pray the rosary daily for its "faithful priests," and for the victims and families of sexual abuse.

With demonstrators waiting outside, the recessional did not exit the cathedral as it has in some past years, but turned inside the vestibule and entered the adjacent chapel.

Afterward, several people said in interviews that allegations against some priests had not undermined their confidence in the clergy.

"They do need the laity behind them and loving them," said Pat Saybolt of Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in the Northeast. She said she was also praying for the "young seminarians who are preparing to make such a major commitment" at a time when the priesthood seems under a cloud. "They need to know people love them," Saybolt said.

Ellis Holmes, 20, a biochemistry major at Temple University, said he came to the Mass because "it's so beautiful" and because the priests "are the light of the world; they help us achieve holiness."

A man of about 40, who had handed out programs for the Mass, said that "while I do support the priests," Rigali's references to clergy sex abuse "were hard for me to hear."

"I was abused by a priest in ninth grade," he said, bowing momentarily and appearing to sob. "I did lose my faith for while," he said afterward, "but the church is all you've got. Where else do you turn in hard times?" He declined to give his name.

The 45 demonstrators who stood across the street were advocating for the ordination of women. Such demonstrations have been a Holy Thursday tradition for years.

"We're here to witness for the inclusion of women in the Roman Catholic Church," said Regina Bannon, head of the local Women's Ordination Conference.

Many of the demonstrators' placards were in support of a member of the Maryknoll order of priests recently dismissed and excommunicated for voicing public support for women priests.

Eileen DiFranco, a Philadelphia school nurse excommunicated for presenting herself to an ordination ceremony in 2006, said she was surprised no area Catholics had used the Holy Thursday services to voice frustration with the priests or the local hierarchy.

"How many of them knew about abuse and didn't say anything?" she asked. "None of them - even the abusers - were ever excommunicated."