Pope Francis began his visit to Chile Tuesday by pleading for forgiveness for the “irreparable damage” done to children by the church’s sex abuse scandal.
Francis sought to repair relations between the Catholic church and the Chilean people amid violent demonstrations and a series of recent church fire bombings in protest of his visit. The outbursts were due in part to distrust caused by years of unmitigated sexual predation by some of Chile’s priests, most notably Rev. Fernando Karadima, according to the Associated Press. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and a group of lawmakers and other government officials applauded Francis during his meeting with them at La Moneda palace for his profession of “pain and shame” over Catholic priests’ sexual abuse of children in Chile.
“I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again” Francis said, according to AP.
Francis did not mention Karadima by name, or the fact that a top papal advisor, the emeritus archbishop of Santiago, allowed Karadima to continue his priestly duties despite knowing of complaints about him molesting children. Parishioners complained for years to church leaders that Karadima was preying on children, but the church did nothing until parishioners went public with their allegations in 2010. The Vatican subsequently sentenced Karadima in 2011 to a lifetime of penitence and prayer and forbade him from ever again performing ministerial duties.
Francis also sparked outrage among Chilean Catholics in 2015 when he appointed Juan Barros, an understudy of Karadima, as Bishop of the city of Osorno. Francis’ appeal for forgiveness also comes only months after he gave the benediction for the funeral of disgraced Cardinal Bernard F. Law who the Boston Globe Spotlight Team exposed for covering up dozens of cases of child sexual abuse by priests. Francis’ role in the funeral deeply upset victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
“People are leaving the church because they don’t find a protective space there,” said Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman for an Osorno Catholic group opposed to Barros, according to AP. “The pastors are eating the flock.”
While many Chilean Catholics flocked to see the Pope and welcomed his visit to Chile, protesters demonstrated against him Tuesday and clashed with police near the park where he celebrated mass. Police employed water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowds. Unidentified arsonists also firebombed three more churches in protest against Francis on Monday night, completely incinerating one of them. No group has claimed responsibility for the fire bombings, but Chilean socialist groups have also expressed strong anti-Catholic sentiment and played a major role in the protests, pointing to the church’s history of sexual abuse as a historical example of what they asses is the church’s predominantly negative role on Chile.
Among 18 Latin American countries surveyed, Francis has the lowest approval rating in Chile, according to AP.
“Sex abuse is Pope Francis’ weakest spot in terms of his credibility,” Massimo Faggioli, Vatican expert and Villanova University professor of theology, told AP. “It is surprising that the pope and his entourage don’t understand that they need to be more forthcoming on this issue.”
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