Pope Frances has admitted his “pain and shame” over the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy on a visit to Chile which has been overshadowed by the firebombing of nine churches – allegedly by activists claiming a high-level cover-up.
Speaking in Santiago in the presence of the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, legislators, diplomats and other officials, Francis asked for forgiveness.
“Here I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church,” he said.
“It is right to ask for forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again.”
Three churches were firebombed on Tuesday, the first full day of the pope’s visit to Chile, bringing the total of churches attacked since Friday to nine. No one has been hurt.
Francis’s reception in Santiago has been much more low-key than he is used to. The focus of critics’ anger is the appointment by the pope of Juan Barros Madrid as bishop of Osorno in southern Chile in 2015. The new bishop is accused of covering up the activities of a notorious sex abuser in the church, Father Fernando Karadima, in the 1980s and 90s.
Karadima, a powerful, well-connected priest, was found guilty by a Vatican internal inquiry of sexual and psychological abuse in 2011, 27 years after the first complaints about him were made. He was forced to retire, and sentenced to a lifetime of “penance and prayer”.
The pope, who had hoped that environmental concerns would be the centrepiece of his visit to Chile and Peru, has encountered an atmosphere of distrust in the church, which has lost moral authority because of abuse scandals and clerical elitism.
“People are leaving the church because they don’t find a protective space there,” said Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman for a group of church members in Osorno that opposed Barros’s appointment as bishop. “The pastors are eating the flock.”
Felipe Morales of the Workers’ Socialist Front, said many were unhappy with the pope and the church’s historical influence in Chile. “The role of the church has been nefarious. Sex abuse cases have been covered up and people are unhappy with many other issues,” he said.
One abuse survivor said Francis’s talk of “pain and shame” was not enough. “The pope has all the necessary power and responsibility to end clerical abuse today, if he wanted,” José Andrés Murillo, who was abused by Karadima and now runs a foundation helping survivors, told the National Catholic Reporter. “[The pope] is responsible for removing, if necessary, every bishop … who has covered up a case of abuse. If he does not do that, his pain and shame is not credible.”
A poll carried out by a Santiago radio station before the pope’s visit found that 90% of Chileans wanted Francis to meet survivors and condemn Karadima.
Another survey by regional pollsters Latinobarometro found that 42% of Chileans approved of Francis, the first Latin American pope, compared with 68% in neighbouring countries.
A “march of the poor” protesting at the cost of the papal trip to Chile, estimated at $17m, was broken up by riot police.
However, thousands of people lined the streets for the pope’s arrival in Chile on Monday. “It was amazing to see him,” said Luis Salazar, a boy who came out with his family to see Francis pass by in his popemobile.
Francis is due to visit the southern city of Temuco and the northern city of Iquique. He is expected to meet victims of the dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet before leaving for Peru on Friday.
Last week, the Vatican took control of a Catholic movement in Peru, the Sodalitium of Christian Life, after prosecutors said they were seeking the arrest of the group’s founder and five other members on charges of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
source: The Guardian