Dismissive words on abuse scandal cast pall over pope's trip

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass at the Las Palmas Air Force base in Lima, Peru, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Karel Navarro)

LIMA, Peru (AP) - Pope Francis ventured into the Amazon to demand rights for indigenous groups, decried the scourge of corruption afflicting the region's politics and denounced a culture of "machismo" in which violence against women is too often tolerated.

Yet his latest visit to South America is likely to be remembered most for 27 dismissive words that sparked outrage among Chileans already angry over a notorious clerical abuse scandal and haunted the rest of his trip.

"That is the enigma of Pope Francis," Anne Barrett Doyle of the online abuse database BishopAccountability.org said Sunday. "He is so bold and compassionate on many issues but he is an old school defensive bishop when it comes to the sex abuse crisis."

Even before Francis landed in Chile for the first leg of his two-country trip, the pontiff's visit seemed ripe for contention. Vandals fire-bombed three churches in the capital of Santiago, warning in a leaflet that "the next bombs will be in your cassock," and an angry group protesting the high cost of hosting him briefly occupied the Nunciature where he would sleep.

Also looming over his visit to both Chile and Peru were damaging clerical sex abuse scandals and growing apathy over the Catholic Church. In a Latinobarometro annual poll last year, 45 percent of Chileans identified as Roman Catholic, a sharp drop from the mid-60s a decade ago. Even in deeply religious Peru, where nearly three-quarters of the population calls itself Catholic, the number of faithful has dipped notably from a generation ago.

As Francis drove through the streets of Santiago in a popemobile after arriving the crowds standing by to greet him were comparably thin when compared to other papal visits.

"Love live the pope!" some yelled. But others weren't welcoming. "Stop the abuse, Francis!" one person's sign said. "You can so you must."

Francis almost immediately dove into the thorny topic of the abuse scandal, meeting on his first full day with survivors of priests who had sexually abused them and apologizing for the "irreparable damage" they suffered.

He proceeded to take on equally contentious concerns throughout the rest of his stay in Chile. He called on the government and indigenous Mapuche to find ways to peacefully resolve differences that have seen a surge of violence. And he urged Chileans to remain welcoming to a surge of new immigrants.

All the while, signs that Francis himself was unwanted continued to emerge. Police shot tear gas and detained dozens of protesters outside a Mass in the capital and there were more church burnings. Aerial photographs taken by local newspapers of all three of Francis' outdoor Masses showed swaths of empty spaces

Then came the 27 words that stunned the nation.

Questioned by local journalists about Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who abuse survivors say was present when the Rev. Fernando Karadima molested them decades ago, Francis responded that there was no proof against the bishop he appointed in 2015 and characterized the accusations as slander.

"The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, then I'll speak," he said. "There is not one shred of proof against him. It's all calumny. Is that clear?"

The comment, combined with Barros' presence at several activities during the week, cast a pall over the entire trip.

"The pope's visit in Chile turned into the worst of his five years as pontiff," read a headline in Clarin, a major newspaper in Francis' native Argentina.

"The principal legacy of this trip will be negative because of Francis' support of Barros," said German Silva, a political scientist at the Universidad Mayor in Santiago.

The remark followed him into Peru. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the pope's top adviser on abuse, and the Chilean government publicly rebuked the pope in a remarkable correction. And near a church where the pope prayed on his final day, a banner hung from a building with the words "Francis, here there is proof" and accompanied by the photo of the disgraced founder of a Peru-based Catholic lay movement.

The banner was a reference to Peru's biggest clerical abuse scandal, involving Luis Figari, the former leader of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae. An independent investigation found Figari sodomized recruits and forced them to fondle him and one another.

Still, despite the outrage that case has stirred in Peru, the pope received a warmer reception here. Thousands waited to greet him each night as he retired to the papal embassy in Lima and people lined the streets wherever he went. Peruvians largely praised his comments condemning corruption in a nation that has been embroiled in Latin America's largest graft scandal. They also welcomed his call to protect the Amazon and stop crimes like sex trafficking and femicide that plague much of the region.

Andrew Chesnut, the Catholic Studies chair at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Francis likely deepened wounds in Chile. But in Peru, "he has helped alleviate the pain of a polarized society, though the medicine won't last long."

Juan Rivera, 31, who attended a final papal Mass that drew 1.3 million people, said the abuse scandals certainly stain the church's reputation. But, he added, "Faith itself can't be stained."