October 01, 2007 12:00 PM

Emerging from Sunday Mass near her home in Rothley, England, on Sept. 16, Kate McCann flashed a fleeting smile, one of her first since daughter Madeleine, 4, went missing in Portugal in May. “They must have been nervous coming to church,” says Father Keith Tomlinson of Kate and husband Gerry, who attended with twins Amelie and Sean, 2. “But they sang, they did the responses.” Added Gerry after the service: “It was very comforting to be among friends and family praying for Madeleine today.” But there was no mistaking the anguish that haunts the couple. In her tote, Kate carried Cuddle Cat, Madeleine’s favorite stuffed toy, which has become a totem of the family’s ordeal—a heartbreaking reminder of their missing child and of the surreal turn of events a week earlier in which the McCanns, both 39 and physicians, were named suspects in her disappearance.

Through it all, they’ve drawn strength from friends and family who have spoken out on their behalf—and let them know they’re not alone. “They’re amazingly strong; they’re very together,” says Linda McQueen, Sean’s godmother. “They have their vulnerable moments, and their dark moments probably as well, but with us friends and very close family, it’s a group holding each other together.” That protective network has helped the couple resume the semblance of a normal life. “When they’re not running around or in meetings,” says Gerry’s sister Philomena McCann, “they spend their time with each other and the twins.” Beyond their inner circle, the McCanns continue to get support from Britain’s A-list: mogul Sir Richard Branson just announced he was donating $200,000 to help cover their mounting legal bills.

Back in Portugal, a judge was reviewing 10 volumes of evidence, and was expected to get back to prosecutors with further instructions, possibly authorizing more searches or additional questioning of the McCanns in England. The dearth of new developments in the police case, however, did nothing to stop the continuing swirl of innuendo and criticism in the European press. “What happened to the facts?” says Gerry’s brother John McCann. One of the latest press bombshells came in a report in a French newspaper, France Soir, which contended there was evidence Madeleine had swallowed “a large” dose of sleeping pills. The paper based the report on what it said was an analysis of liquid found in the trunk of the car rented by the McCanns 25 days after Madeleine went missing. But over the past month the material supposedly found in the trunk has been variously described as blood, fluid or hair—with still no confirmation that anything at all was discovered.

Indeed the Portuguese press has been merciless in its coverage of Kate. One paper said it would have been “immoral” if the McCanns had used donated sperm in their fertility treatment to conceive Madeleine. (Speaking to Flash! magazine Kate said, “The only thing I’ve ever been certain of in life is I’ve wanted to be a mum,” adding that the first six months of Madeleine’s life, when she had colic, were “very difficult.”)

But now a backlash against the harsh coverage seems to be building. One spokesman for the Portuguese authorities reportedly resigned in protest over leaks from the police to the press. And Pamela Fenn, an elderly neighbor of the McCanns in Portugal, who was quoted in the press questioning the couple’s conduct, tells PEOPLE, “Everything being written about me is rubbish.”

For the McCann camp, a more measured approach cannot come soon enough. And now they must wait for a break in a case that could come at any time—if it comes at all. As Philomena McCann puts it, with all the suspicions the problem now is that “Kate and Gerry are on the front page and not Madeleine. It’s all about them, which is not what they want.”

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