SANTIAGO - Pope Francis publicly expressed “pain and shame” on Tuesday over the rape and molestation of children by priests in Chile and later listened, prayed and cried at a private meeting with victims.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the meeting took place in the Vatican embassy in Santiago.
“No one else was present. Only the pope and the victims,” the spokesman said. “This was so they could speak of their suffering to Pope Francis, who listened to them and prayed and cried with them.”
It was only the second time on his overseas trips that the pope has met victims of sexual abuse, although he has met some at the Vatican. The last meeting on a trip was in Philadelphia in 2015.
Burke declined to give details, but his statement came at the end of an intense day for the pope, during which he spoke of sexual abuse twice, once asking forgiveness for abuses he said had done “irreparable damage” to victims.
The Argentine pontiff made his first remarks at the presidential palace, La Moneda, an unusual choice because the pope usually talks about sexual abuse to Church leaders and not politicians.
But the scandal has gripped the nation, prompting many politicians to criticize the Church in the staunchly Catholic country, where the crisis has scarred its credibility.
“Here I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church,” he said, drawing sustained applause, including from President Michelle Bachelet and diplomats.
“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,” he said.
The crisis centered on the pope's appointment in 2015 of Bishop Juan Barros to head the small diocese of Osorno in south-central Chile.
Barros, who attended a papal Mass on Tuesday, has been accused of protecting his former mentor, Father Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty in a Vatican investigation in 2011 of abusing teenage boys over many years. Karadima has denied the allegations, and Barros said he was unaware of any wrongdoing.
“There have been many lies told about my situation,” he told Reuters after the Mass.
It was not clear if the victims the pope met were molested by Karadima. Burke would only say that they were all victims of abuse by priests.
Along with growing secularization, the scandal has hurt the standing of a Church that defended human rights during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
A poll by Santiago-based think tank Latinobarometro this month showed that the number of Chileans calling themselves Catholics fell to 45 percent last year, from 74 percent in 1995.
Francis returned to the theme of abuse on Tuesday evening in an address to priests and nuns in Santiago’s cathedral. He spoke of “this great and painful evil” which had led victims and their families to “see the trust they had placed in the Church’s ministers betrayed.”
But he said he also understood the pain of priests and nuns who had nothing to do with abuse and had been unfairly tainted, including being “insulted in the metro or walking on the street.”
At least eight Catholic churches were attacked in Chile in the past week.
Police in riot gear dispersed some 200 demonstrators trying to make their way to a park in Chilean capital Santiago, where the pope — the first Latin American head of the Church - said Mass for some 400,000 people.
Hours after the pope arrived in Chile on Monday, two small wooden churches were burned to the ground near Temuco, where Francis is due to visit on Wednesday.
The indigenous Mapuche in the area accuse the state and private companies of taking their ancestral lands. The Mapuche say the pope’s ceremony will be held on seized land.
A church in the capital was attacked during the night, causing minor damage. Vandals burned Chilean and Vatican flags at the site and tossed pamphlets with threats against the pope.
At one attack which involved a homemade bomb, a pamphlet was left that read: “Pope Francis, the next bomb will be in your robe.”
Graffiti scrawled on one Santiago church read: “Burn the pope.”
About 10 blocks from Tuesday’s Mass, riot police clashed with people protesting against the sexual abuse scandal and the $17 million cost of the papal visit. “Complicit Pedophiles,” read one of the banners.
But the welcome most Chileans have given Francis has been warm, with tens of thousands lining the streets.