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Pope Francis Asks for Mercy for Harm Done to Chilean Child Sex Abuse Victims


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, Jan. 16, 2018.

Pope Francis is asking for mercy for the "irreparable harm" done to children who were sexually abused by priests in Chile, a scandal that has damaged the Catholic Church's integrity and cast a pall over the pope's first visit to the country.

"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,'' Francis told Chile's president and other dignitaries in a speech Tuesday in Santiago.

Francis, Latin America's first pope, did not mention the name of Chile's most infamous pedophile priest, Reverend Fernando Karadima, who was punished to a lifetime of "penance and prayer" for sexually abusing children.

Karadima's victims publicly disclosed their accusations in 2010 after complaining for years to church officials that Kardima kissed and fondled them when they were teenagers.

Many Chileans are still angry over the pope's 2015 decision to appoint Karadima protege Juan Barros as bishop of the southern city of Osorno. His appointment has divided the diocese as he denies being aware of Karadama's abuse.

The pope also did not mention Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, a top papal advisor, who acknowledged he was aware of complaints against Karadima but did not relieve him of his ministerial duties.

"Sex abuse is Pope Francis' weakest spot in terms of his credibility,'' said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. "It is surprising that the pope and his entourage do not understand that they need to be more forthcoming on this issue."

The U.S.-based NGO Bishop Accountability reported last week that nearly 80 Catholic clergy members had been accused of sexually abusing Chilean children since 2000.

A recent Latinbarometro survey said the crisis triggered a sharp drop in the number of Chileans who consider themselves Catholic, as well as a decline in confidence in the church as an institution.

The distrust extends to Francis, a native Argentina who is on his first papal visit to Chile, a country that gives him the lowest approval rating among the 18 Latin American countries in the survey.

People angry over the Barros appointment have planned protests for Tuesday in Santiago's O'Higgins Park, where Francis is schedule to celebrate Mass.

Others, however, are thrilled about the prospects of seeing the pope. Thousands lined the streets of Santiago to see Francis after his arrival Monday, although the crowds were noticeably smaller compared to previous visits to other Latin American countries.

"It was amazing to see him,'' said Luis Salazar, a young boy who came with his family to see Francis cruise past Monday in his popemobile.

The pope will trying to reengergize the church during his visit, during which he will meet with migrants, members of Chile's Mapuche indigenous group and victims of the country's 1973-1990 military dictatorship. It is not known if Francis will meet with sex abuse victims.