SANTIAGO – Pope Francis opened his first visit to Chile by referring directly to a sex abuse scandal which has rocked the Catholic Church in the South American nation, seeking the victims’ forgiveness.
During his first official address in capital Santiago, the pontiff said he felt “bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church.” Francis said he joined his fellow bishops in asking forgiveness, supporting victims and ensuring abuse doesn’t happen again.
“It is right to ask forgiveness,” he said (in Spanish).
The first Latin American pope, specifically, is the target of ire because he appointed a bishop who many Chileans accuse of covering up sexual abuse by a now-disgraced priest.
In 2011, the Vatican sanctioned Rev. Fernando Karadima for sexually abusing minors in his posh Santiago parish over decades, but the Catholic church has yet to recover from the scandal.
Many Chileans are still furious over Francis’ 2015 decision to appoint a bishop who had been protégé of Karadima. Bishop Juan Barros of the southern city of Osorno has always denied he knew of Karadima’s wrongdoings.
That anger has sparked anti-Catholic violence in Chile. In Santiago, at least five churches have been attacked since Friday, some with firebombs. Others have been vandalized, according to the country’s interior subsecretary, Mahmud Aleuy.
No one was hurt, but the vandals left behind a message threatening to kill Pope Francis.
Around half a million people are expected to attend Pope Francis’ open-air Mass in central Santiago. From there, he will visit a women’s prison in Santiago, followed by a trip to southern Chile where he will address the struggle of the indigenous Mapuche people to recuperate ancestral land from the Chilean government.
Francis, who studied in Chile as part of his Jesuit training, might meet victims of sexual abuse in private, as he has on past trips, but there has been no official confirmation of such a meeting.
Under the Pope, a Vatican committee has been set up to fight sexual abuse and help victims but Chilean victims of clerical sex abuse say more transparency is needed.