Pope Francis has accused victims of sexual abuse in Chile of slander, saying their attacks on a bishop who's accused of covering up the abuse amount to "calumny." The remarks triggered anger and demonstrations in Chile, where several churches have been firebombed in the past week.
On the last day of his visit to Chile, Francis set the simmering resentment some hold against the Catholic Church to a full boil with his defense of Bishop Juan Barros. The bishop has been hotly criticized ever since the pope appointed him in 2015. Barros was the protégé of Rev. Fernando Karadima, a notorious disgraced priest who served in the southern city of Osorno and who was found guilty and dismissed in 2011 for abusing dozens of minors over a decades-long period beginning in the 1980s.
Karadima became the face of the church's sexual abuse scandal in Chile. And his victims say they believe Barros knew about the priest's abuse but did nothing to stop it or report it. As recently as this week, Barros has denied witnessing any abuse.
In trying to reconcile his church with its followers over decades of sexual abuse, the pope has embraced a "zero tolerance" policy. When a Chilean journalist asked Francis about Barros, the Associated Press reports, Francis replied, "The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I'll speak."
He added, "There is not one shred of proof against him. It's all calumny. Is that clear?"
The comment immediately set off a backlash, with abuse victims speaking out on Twitter and elsewhere, with many saying the statement echoed the skepticism and denial that had met with their claims. One victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, replied, "As if one could have taken a selfie or photo while Karadima abused me and others" while Barros stood by."
Adding to the drama, the exchange took place one week after the Associated Press reportedly Francis had written a letter in January of 2015 about the Vatican's attempt to cope with the fallout from Karadima. In it, the agency said, Francis acknowledged the controversy around Barros and referred to a previous plan to ask for Barros' resignation.
On Thursday, the pope's remarks dismissing Barros' critics came in Iquique, where the controversial bishop was on hand as Francis celebrated a mass at a beach.
With Pope Francis' visit to Chile now over, the newspaper Clarin is calling it "the worst of his five years" as pope, citing his remarks about Barros and comparatively low turnouts for Francis' public events in the country.
Days earlier, Francis had asked for forgiveness and sought to heal old wounds over the Church's handling of abuse. On the first day of his visit to Chile, he spoke of "the pain and shame, that I feel at the irreparable damage caused to children by ministers of the Church."
Shortly after making that statement on Tuesday, Francis met with a small group of victims of sexual abuse in Santiago, in a meeting at which the Vatican says the pope "listened to them and prayed and cried with them."
At least five Catholic churches have been attacked in Chile over the past week, some with firebombs. The attacks have also included vandalism and graffiti, including accusations and threats against Pope Francis. After spending several days in Chile, the pope is now in Peru on the next stage of his tour.