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In Chile, Pope Francis Apologizes for ‘Irreparable Damage’ Caused by Sexual Abuse

Posted January 16, 2018 5:08 p.m. EST

Pope Francis said on Tuesday that he was “pained and ashamed” over the “irreparable damage” priests had inflicted on minors, as he offered Chileans an apology during his first visit to their country as pontiff.

“It is just to ask for forgiveness and to support victims with as much strength as possible, even as we take steps to ensure that this never happens again,” the pope said during an address in Santiago, Chile’s capital, attended by President Michelle Bachelet.

The remarks were the pope’s latest effort to contain the fallout from a series of sexual abuse scandals that have contributed to the decline of Catholicism in several regions, including Latin America.

But victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy in Chile said the pope’s words rang hollow.

“It’s not the time for apologies anymore, it’s the time for action,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean who was abused by a priest when he was a 17-year-old seminarian. “Here in Chile there are bishops who have witnessed abuse and who have covered that up and who have abused as well and they are still in their position. The pope should remove them.”

Francis made his apology during an address at the Chilean presidential palace in the morning, standing alongside Bachelet, an atheist. Francis, an Argentine, said he was pleased to “be on Latin American soil again” and paid tribute to democracy in Chile, which held a presidential election last month.

He did not mention abortion rights, same-sex marriage or gender identity, three issues over which Chilean lawmakers have sparred in recent months. But he called on Chile to “listen to migrants who are knocking on the door of this country in search of a better life, and at the same time, with the strength and hope to build a better future for all.”

The pope also championed indigenous rights ahead of a visit on Wednesday to a region in southern Chile that has become embroiled in the Mapuche indigenous people’s fight to reclaim ancestral lands.

The speech was interrupted by bursts of applause, but the pope drew criticism for what he did next. After leaving the presidential palace, Francis celebrated Mass in Santiago alongside Bishop Juan Barros Madrid of Osorno, a city in southern Chile. Barros has been accused of protecting the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a former priest who was defrocked by the Vatican for abusing teenagers during the 1980s and 1990s.

The pope has been criticized for elevating Barros to bishop in 2015 despite being aware of the allegations against him.

“The criticism was heard loud and clear,” said Marta Lagos, a political analyst who recently oversaw a study on the decline of Catholicism in Latin America, where evangelical denominations have cut into the Roman Catholic Church’s base. “How can he ask for forgiveness and then offer a Mass with him, a bishop accused of having been an accomplice” to abuse?

Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of, a group that tracks abuse cases in the church, said the pope’s remarks in Santiago were “strong but familiar.” Francis last year acknowledged that the church had been slow to respond to allegations of abuse and said that “pedophilia is a sickness.”

Doyle, whose group last week published a database of nearly 80 Chilean clergymen who have been accused of abuse, said she hoped the pope would commit to undertaking a sweeping investigation of past cases.

“If the pope leaves Chile without committing to investigate complicit church leaders, the public’s already deep distrust of the church will intensify,” Doyle said.

Catholicism has lost millions of followers in Latin America in recent years. The decline in Chile has been among the steepest. Between 1995 and last year, the number of Chileans who described themselves as Catholic dropped to 45 percent from 74 percent, according to a poll conducted by Latinobarómetro, which Lagos runs. The poll had a margin of error of 2.8 to 3 percentage points.

Cruz, the abuse victim, said the pope’s decision to offer Mass alongside Barros brought into sharp focus why many across Latin America had turned away from the church.

“That is such a terrible sign and an incoherent signal to survivors,” he said, calling it “the reason Chile has lost so much faith in the hierarchy and we have become a much less Catholic country.”