Pope Francis asks forgiveness for “irreparable damage” caused by clergy sex abuse in Chile

Pope Francis delivers a speech during a meeting with government authorities, members of civil society and the diplomatic corps, at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In his first speech in Chile, Pope Francis addressed the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by clergy that has profoundly shaken both church and state in this majority Catholic country of 17 million people. He told the nation, “I feel bound to express my pain and shame, shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church.”

He did so in his speech, on the morning of Jan. 16, at the colonial-style 18th-century Moneda Palace, the presidential residence, in Santiago, the capital city. The audience included the present, past and future presidents of this republic Michelle Bachelet, Riccardo Lagos and Sebastian Pinera, respectively, as well as the top civic and state representatives and the diplomatic corps.

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His words drew strong, sustained applause from his distinguished audience.

Pope Francis: “I feel bound to express my pain and shame.”

Francis went on to tell the authorities present—and the millions of Chileans following the ceremony on national television—that with “my brother bishops” he felt “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.”

Prior to his visit, many had wondered how Francis would address this scandal. He lost no time in doing so and is expected to address the issue again when he speaks to priests, religious and seminarians at the city’s cathedral this evening. It remains to be seen whether he will also meet some the victims.

The abuse scandal has shaken Chilean society and the church to their foundations, causing immense damage to the credibility of a church that was the most trusted institution in the country some decades ago. The crisis has demoralized the clergy and led many Catholics to abandon the faith.

“It is right to ask for forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims.”

The scandal, which first broke at the turn of the century but hit with force in 2010 when victims accused the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a charismatic priest of the Archdiocese of Santiago who exercised enormous influence over young Chileans, especially among the elite, and formed six of the country’s current bishops. When his evildoing was discovered, the church removed him from pastoral work and assigned the now 80-year-old man to a life of penance and prayer. While Father Karadima has become a symbol of all that is wrong in the Chilean church, he was not the only predator; as many as 75 other priests and religious, including Marists, a Jesuit provincial and a well-known bishop, have also been accused of this abuse.

Pope Francis, too, has been much criticized in Chile for appointing as bishop to the Diocese of Osorno, Msgr. Juan Barros, a man of Father Karadima’s inner circle, who is alleged to have covered up his wrongdoing, though neither a church investigation nor state prosecutors could find evidence of this. Nonetheless, he has been condemned by the public for alleged cover-up or guilt by association, and as the pope drove from the airport to the city yesterday, a small group from Osorno staged a protest.

The abuse scandal has shaken Chilean society and the church to their foundations.

While Francis’ reference to the abuse scandal was the most important and noteworthy part of his speech, it was by no means the only significant element in it.

After being given a colorful state welcome in front of the presidential residence with a guard of honor and military bands playing the national anthems of Chile and the Vatican, President Bachelet warmly welcomed him as “a brother” and told him “the doors of Chile are open to you; Chile is your home.”

Pope Francis then began his speech by expressing his “joy” at once again standing on Latin American soil. He told those present and the millions following on national television that “this land [is] so close to my heart” because it “welcomed and schooled me in my younger years.” 

Pope Francis began his speech by expressing his “joy” at once again standing on Latin American soil.

The first Latin American pope then hailed the fact that Chile in recent decades has distinguished itself “by the growth of democracy.” This reference to democracy was significant because when St. John Paul II came here in 1987, the country was still under the military dictatorship. General Augusto Pinochet began the coup on Sept. 11, 1973, by getting the airforce to bomb the Moneda Palace, which led to the death of its democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. President Bachelet’s father was arrested then, tortured and killed soon after, and she and her mother were detained for some time, before being forced into exile. The mother, who publicly forgave her husband’s killers, was in the audience as the pope spoke, and he met her later in La Moneda.

In his speech, a visibly happy Pope Francis recalled that this year marks the 200th anniversary of Chile’s declaration of independence “which shaped the country’s destiny as a people founded on freedom and law.” At the same time, quoting Cardinal Silva Herriquez, the courageous Chilean church leader under the period of military rule, he reminded the country’s leaders that the task of building the nation is an ongoing task and added, “Goodness together with love, justice and solidarity are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day.”

He told them that “it is not possible to settle for what was achieved in the past and complacently enjoy it, as if we could ignore the fact that many of our brothers and sisters still endure situations of injustice that none of us can ignore.” He is likely to flesh out this reference to the “situations of injustice” over the next two days.

“Goodness together with love, justice and solidarity are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day.”

He told the Chilean political and civic leaders that it is imperative that they “continue working to make this democracy...a place where everyone, without exception, feels called to join in building a house, a family and a nation” that is “generous and welcoming…and committed to social harmony.” He said the achievement of this “depends in large part on the ability of its people and leaders to listen” in a nation “whose ethnic, cultural and historic diversity must be preserved from all partisan spirit or attempts at domination.”

He emphasized the need to listen to “the unemployed” and to “the native peoples, often forgotten whose rights and culture needs to be protected” as well as to “the immigrants who knock on the doors of this country.” He spoke, too, about the importance for the future of the country of listening “to the young” and protecting them from drugs. Chilean sources say 600,000 of young adults are neither studying or working.

He also underlined the need “to listen to children,” and in this context he expressed his “shame and pain” for their abuse by priests.

In the final part of his speech, Pope Francis underlined the importance of listening to creation, or as he put it “to give preferential attention to our common home.” Drawing on his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Francis emphasized the need for a new way of thinking and a new lifestyle that can “generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” that “allows powerful economic interests to prevail over natural ecosystems” and “the common good of our people.” He reminded them that “the wisdom of the native peoples can contribute greatly to this.”

Pope Francis concluded his speech by calling on all Chileans “to transcend a merely consumerist view of life” and “to adopt a wise attitude to the future” and build a country in which “no one should feel excluded or unneeded.”

When he finished, his audience stood and warmly applauded him. Then, after a private meeting with the president, he drove in his small Hyundai car from the Moneda Palace, through the city and cheering crowds to O’Higgins Park to celebrate Mass for hundreds of thousands of Chileans and thousands of Argentineans who have come here to be with him.

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