SANTIAGO, Chile—Pope Francis apologized for the sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by priests during his first public remarks on Tuesday in Chile, where the credibility of the Catholic Church has been badly marred by scandals involving clergy.
“I feel bound to express my pain and shame, shame I feel for the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church,” Francis said. “I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask for forgiveness and to make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again.”
The pope’s words came during the first speech of his Jan. 15-18 trip to Chile, as he was addressing public authorities, members of civil society and the diplomatic corps at the country’s government house, La Moneda Palace, on Tuesday.
Outside of Europe and the United States, in few places have clerical sexual abuse scandals caused greater tumult than in Chile. Many observers believe the way those scandals were dealt with, both locally and by the Vatican, has accelerated an exodus of faithful from the Church, fueled too by increasing secularism.
At the center of the crisis in Chile has been Father Fernando Karadima, once considered the preacher of Santiago’s elite. He’s been found guilty of sexually abusing minors over decades. His critics charge that his superiors either covered up for him or looked the other way.
Allegations against him go as far back as the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2010 when a group of victims went public that the extent of his abuse was known. A year later, the Vatican deemed him guilty, and condemned him to a life of penitence and prayer. Since the statute of limitations on his crimes had already passed, he was never tried in a criminal court.
Four years later, Francis caused an uproar when he decided to transfer bishop Juan Barros to the southern city of Osorno from the military chaplaincy. Barros, together with two other bishops, was a close collaborator of Karadima, and victims have alleged he knew of his mentor’s crimes, something which he has repeatedly denied.
Many in Osorno protested the appointment. Later that year, the pontiff was filmed saying that those protesting Barros were “suffering because of stupidity” and that they were being led by the nose by “leftists.”
In March of 2015, after the appointment was announced, the Vatican released a statement defending Barros, saying that his candidacy had been carefully examined and that no reasons were found to prevent the appointment.
Also on Tuesday, Francis spoke about the need to protect the environment, the importance of Chile listening to its indigenous people, and referred to newly elected president Sebastián Piñera, “who recently received the mandate of the Chilean people to govern the country.”
Speaking to an audience that included outgoing president Michele Bachelet, the pope also called for a “radical option for life, especially in all those forms in which it is threatened.”
Bachelet was the main proponent of a law that last year legalized abortion under three circumstances — when a woman’s life is endangered, when a pregnancy results from rape, or when the pregnancy is not considered viable.
When the Chilean bishops were in Rome last February for their ad limina meeting with the pope and various Vatican offices, which bishops are required to have every five years, they spoke about abortion – at the time still being debated — same-sex marriage, which is still being debated, and clerical sexual abuse.
Close papal observers will remember the history-making picture of Pope John Paul II in 1987 on one of the balconies from La Moneda with dictator Augusto Pinochet, during the first and, until now, only papal visit to Chile. Despite the pope’s critical stance on the regime, and his many encounters with opposition leaders during the visit, at the time, it was perceived by some as a sign of support from the Vatican for the Pinochet regime.
However, one of the Polish pope’s closest aides said in 2009 that he had been tricked into it.
The question of a possible repeat was posed to outgoing President Michelle Bachelet before the trip, and she repeatedly said that there would be no picture.
In his address on Tuesday, Francis also referred to Chile’s democracy and the way it’s grown in recent decades, after the end of Pinochet’s rule, in 1990.
The pope’s apology for the sexual abuses committed by priests came as he was talking about Chile’s future and encouraging the country to continue “working to make this democracy,” turning the country into a place where “everyone, without exception, feels called to join in building a house, a family, and a nation.”
Quoting Chilean St. Alberto Hurtado, the pope said that a nation is more than its borders, lands, language and traditions: “[It] is a mission to be fulfilled.”
This mission, he added, is the country’s future, and it’s tied to the ability to listen as both leaders and society in general have.
In Chile, Francis said, listening is particularly important, because of its “ethnic, cultural and historical diversity,” which must be preserved “from all partisan spirit or attempts at domination,” moved by the ability to “replace narrow ideologies with a healthy concern for the common good.”
Chile has more than nine indigenous tribes, and according to the pope, native peoples are “often forgotten,” hence he urged for them to be heard and their rights and culture protected.
The pontiff then ticked off some of his most urgent concerns, reiterating the need to listen to migrants and help them, the youth particularly in education so they can be builders of the Chile of their dreams, while shielding them from the “scourge of drugs;” the elderly, who have a “much-needed wisdom” and particular needs; and children, who “look out on the world with eyes full of amazement and innocence.”
On the environment, Francis said everyone is invited to give a “preferential attention to our common home,” something the “wisdom of the native peoples can contribute greatly to.”
Later on Tuesday, Francis is scheduled to have a private encounter with Bachelet, say Mass in the O’Higgins Park, visit a female prison, meet the local priests and religious men and women, and the Chilean bishops. He will close the first day of his sixth visit to Latin America in the St. Alberto Hurtado shrine, where he will honor the late Jesuit priest and encounter a group of beneficiaries of the charity he founded, Hogar de Cristo; and as is customary, he will meet with the local Jesuit community.