Pope angers Chile after backing bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse

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

Both a Chilean judge and the Vatican had found that the accusations made by Karadima’s victims were credible — even though by then it was too late to prosecute the priest. But Barros, once Karadima's protege, continues to have he 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 on Thursday, however, Pope Francis raised doubts about their claims, according to the Associated Press. “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 Thursday’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 sex 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.