Pope Francis is in Chile this week on something of an apology tour.
Chile has historically been a stronghold of the Catholic Church. Nearly half of the population identifies as Catholic. But secularism has made considerable inroads in the South American country lately, thanks in part to a clergy sex abuse scandal that has roiled the faithful.
In 2011, after decades of complaints, Chilean priest Fernando Karadima was found guilty of abusing dozens of minors. He was dismissed and sentenced to a life of “penance and prayer.”
But Karadima’s victims say the church was too slow to investigate and dismiss the priest. They are angry, too, that he was replaced by his protege Juan Barros. Barros’s opponents say he knew of Karadima’s crimes and did nothing. (Barros has denied this.) “I still don’t understand how we, the thousands of victims of abuse, were not protected by our priests, who were silent witnesses to what was happening to us,” James Hamilton, one of the victims, wrote in an open letter about the appointment.
Much of that ire is directed at Francis. When Chileans were asked to evaluate the pontiff on a scale of 0 to 10, they gave him a 5.3, the lowest ranking he has received in Latin America. In the days before his visit, at least nine churches were firebombed. No one was hurt, but the vandals left fliers at some sites threatening to kill the pope.
On Tuesday, as Francis arrived in Santiago, the capital, a handful of protesters gathered to criticize the Chilean church for spending a reported $17 million to host him while much of the country lives in poverty. “People are leaving the church because they don’t find a protective space there,” Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesman for a group of church members who opposed Barros’s appointment as bishop, told the Associated Press. “The pastors are eating the flock.”
Even his major events have not been free of controversy. At a public Mass in O’Higgins Park on Tuesday, as thousands cheered and prayed, someone threw a newspaper at the pope’s head.
That hasn’t deterred Francis, who began his three-day visit with a request for forgiveness.
“Here I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church,” Francis told Chilean government officials, including President Michelle Bachelet, lawmakers and the diplomatic corps in Santiago. “I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask for forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again.”
The pope also visited a women’s prison. Later this week, he is set to address the Mapuche people, an indigenous group struggling to reclaim ancestral land from the government.