On Visit To Chile, Pope Asks For Forgiveness Over Sex-Abuse Scandal

Updated at 8:40 a.m. ET

Pope Francis, arriving in Chile to begin a three-day visit, opened his trip by asking for forgiveness over a local priest-abuse scandal that has left the country reeling — and prompted a less-than-warm reception for the Argentine-born pontiff.

The 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. Francis directly addressed the controversy in a speech to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and other officials on Tuesday, as Emily Green reports for NPR.

"Francis said he felt 'bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused by some ministers of the church," Green reports. "He promised he would try and ensure such abuse never happened again."

"It is right to ask forgiveness," the pope said, according to an Associated Press translation.

It's not clear if the pope will meet with sexual abuse survivors during his trip, the AP reports.

Green reports from the Chilean capital: "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 Mapuche people — an indigenous group — to recuperate ancestral land from the Chilean government."

While once a stronghold of the Catholic Church, Chile is now among Latin America's most secular nations, and the image of the church has taken a severe hit over what many see as a cover-up. In 2011, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, who served in the southern city of Osorno, was found guilty and dismissed for abusing dozens of minors over a decades-long period beginning in the 1980s.

He was replaced in 2015 by a protégé, Juan Barros, who victims of Karadima say knew about the abuse but did nothing. Barros has denied any knowledge of the incidents.

Although Francis has pledged a "zero tolerance" policy on abuse, he has had to walk a fine line in the matter and many inside and outside the church accuse him of not acting decisively enough.

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, according to local reports, but The Santiago Times reports that in one case, the vandals left behind a message threatening to kill Pope Francis.

The pope, who studied in Chile as part of his Jesuit training, nonetheless gets a low approval rating there and, more generally, the Karadima scandal has been responsible for a big drop in the number of people in the country who identify as Catholic.

"People are leaving the church because they don't find a protective space there," Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman for a group of church members in Osorno that has opposed Barros' appointment as bishop, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying. "The pastors are eating the flock."

Even so, the AP notes: "[Many] will be excited to see the pope. Thousands lined the streets of Santiago to get a glimpse of Francis after he arrived Monday night, though the crowds were notably thin compared to previous visits to other Latin American capitals."

Last week, the AP broke a story that the Vatican was so concerned about the Karadima scandal that it planned to ask three Chilean bishops to step down. In a letter obtained by the news agency, bishops expressed concern about Francis naming Barros as a replacement.

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