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Pope partially apologizes to Chilean abuse victims, but still backs controversial bishop

Pope Francis speaks to journalists after his trip to South America on Jan. 22 (Luca Zennaro EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It was supposed to be an apology tour, but Pope Francis's Chile visit drew unexpected ire last week after the head of the Catholic Church came to the support of Juan Barros, a bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse committed by a priest named Fernando Karadima. The remarks came at the end of a visit that was intended to ease tensions between the church and Karadima's victims.

On Monday, the pope apologized for previous remarks in which he had demanded evidence from Barros’s accusers, now saying that his words must have come across as a “slap in the face” of victims.

Despite his self-criticism, the pope stood by Barros and also warned accusers that they may be found guilty of slander if they continued to make public statements without being able to provide evidence.

“I can’t condemn him because I don’t have evidence,” Francis said aboard a plane on its way back to the Vatican. “But I’m also convinced that he’s innocent.”

The pope's most recent comments are unlikely to soothe tensions that have been running high in Chile in recent weeks, with several churches even becoming targets of arson attacks.

Both a Chilean judge and the Vatican have found that the accusations made by Fernando Karadima’s victims were credible — even though it was too late to prosecute the priest. But Barros, once Karadima's protege, continues to have the support of the Catholic Church, despite accusations he covered up the abuse. The accusations against Barros have come from some of the same victims deemed credible in the investigation of Karadima.

Responding to a Chilean journalist last Thursday, however, Francis had raised doubts about their claims. “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” he said. He added: “There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?” Francis appointed Barros to his current diocese in 2015 after the bishop denied all accusations against him.

Chileans had previously protested Barros's appointment and drawn a similar rebuke from the pope, who called their concerns “stupid.” But last week's papal comments came at a particularly unfortunate time, as the Catholic Church attempts to heal the not-so-old wounds that have significantly diminished the Vatican’s credibility in the South American country.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a high-profile Barros accuser, later took to Twitter to voice his outrage over the pope’s remarks. “As if I could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all," he wrote. "These people are truly crazy, and the pontiff talks about atonement to the victims. Nothing has changed, and his plea for forgiveness is empty.”

"What the Pope has done today is offensive and painful, and not only against us, but against everyone seeking to end the abuses," James Hamilton, another Barros accuser, was quoted as saying by the BBC during a news conference.

Other priests and Catholic churchgoers in Barros’s diocese have refused to accept the bishop, an indication that the Vatican has lost much of its religious authority in the country.

It took the Catholic Church more than eight years to finally take victims’ accounts of sexual abuse by Karadima seriously, and an investigation was launched only after the scandal was made public.

As my colleague Amanda Erickson wrote earlier this week, the Catholic Church has long been a powerful institution in Chile, where almost half of the population identifies as Catholic. Over the past decade, however, more and more people have turned their backs on the church. Many cite the sexual abuse scandal for their loss of faith.

“In the typical Chilean family, parents [now] think twice before sending their kids to Catholic school, because you never know what is going to happen,” Patricio Navia, a political science professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago, told the AP.

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