A holy row has broken out between the Vatican and The New York Times after the Vatican took the unusual step of singling out the newspaper and columnist Maureen Dowd for some extraordinary criticism.

Cardinal William Levada, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the newspaper "lacks fairness" and had wrongly accused the Pope of "leniency and inaction" in dealing with abuse cases.

And he accused Dowd of "silly parroting" in her columns on the abuse.

"I ask the Times to reconsider its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on," Levada wrote in the article which was posted online Wednesday.

Levada took over from Benedict in leading the Congregation, otherwise known as the Holy Office, which oversees Catholic doctrine and issues of faith and morals.

Levada accused the newspaper of wrongly using the Murphy case to criticize Benedict's response to abuse claims.

Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty quickly hit back and said the newspaper stood by its stories.

"The allegations of abuse within the Catholic Church are a serious subject, as the Vatican has acknowledged on many occasions," she said.

"Any role the current Pope may have played in responding to those allegations over the years is a significant aspect of this story."

The Church has used Easter week to attack the U.S. media and particularly the Times for its reporting of the scandals and the way in which the Pope has now become involved.

Holy row: Cardinal William Levada calls Maureen Dowd a 'silly parrot' in attack on Times