Pope apologizes to sex abuse victims, defends accused Chilean bishop

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

apologized to victims of clergy sex abuse, saying he unknowingly wounded them by
the way he defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by his

Speaking with journalists on his flight to Rome from Lima,
Peru, Jan. 21, the pope said he only realized later that his words erroneously implied that victims’ accusations are credible only with concrete

“To hear that the pope says to their face, ‘Bring me a
letter with proof,’ is a slap in the face,” the pope said.

Pope Francis was referring to a response he gave in Iquique,
Chile, Jan. 18 when local reporters asked about his support for Bishop Juan
Barros of Osorno, given accusations that the bishop may have been aware of
abuse perpetrated by his former mentor, Father Fernando Karadima. The priest was
sentenced to a life of prayer and penance by the Vatican after he was found
guilty of sexually abusing boys.

“The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I
will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It is calumny. Is
that clear?” the pope had told the reporters in Iquique.

His response provoked further outrage, especially from
Father Karadima’s victims who said the pope’s response made his earlier apologies
for the church’s failure to protect sex abuse victims seem hollow.

Asked about the incident during the flight back to Rome,
Pope Francis said he meant to use the word “evidence,” not
“proof.” The way he phrased his response, he said, caused confusion
and was “not the best word to use to approach a wounded heart.”

“Of course, I know that there are many abused people
who cannot bring proof (or) they don’t have it,” he said. “Or at times
they have it but they are ashamed and cover it up and suffer in silence. The
tragedy of the abused is tremendous.”

However, the pope told reporters on the papal flight he
still stood firmly behind his defense of Bishop Barros, because he was “personally
convinced” of the bishop’s innocence after the case was investigated twice
with no evidence emerging.

Pope Francis said that while “covering up abuse is an
abuse in itself,” if he punished Bishop Barros without moral certainty,
“I would be committing the crime of a bad judge.”

During the inflight news conference, Pope Francis answered eight
questions over the course of an hour, although the conference was interrupted
by turbulence, which forced the pope to sit for about five minutes.

As he did in November on his return from Bangladesh, he said
he only wanted to respond to questions related to the trip.

Pope Francis told reporters he appreciated the statement
made Jan. 20 by Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, president of the Pontifical
Commission for the Protection of Minors, acknowledging the pain survivors of
abuse felt because of the pope’s statement about Bishop Barros.

“Words that convey the message ‘If you cannot prove
your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered
reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors
to discredited exile,” the cardinal wrote.

He also said, “Pope Francis fully recognizes the
egregious failures of the church and its clergy who abused children and the devastating
impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones.”

The pope said he was grateful for Cardinal O’Malley’s
statement because it struck the right balance between listing what he has done to
show his support for sex abuse victims and the pain experienced by victims
because of the pope’s remarks.

Pope Francis also spoke about the scandal-plagued Sodalitium
Christianae Vitae, a Catholic movement based in Peru.

The movement’s founder, Luis Fernando Figari, has been
accused of the sexual and psychological abuse of members; he has been ordered by
the Vatican to remain in Rome and not have any contact with the movement.

“He declared himself innocent of the charges against
him,” Pope Francis told reporters, and he has appealed his cause to the
Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court. According to the information
the pope has received, he said, “the verdict will be released in less than
a month.”

Pope Francis also was asked about the status of the
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he set up in 2014.
The three-year terms of its members expired in December and some have
questioned whether child protection really is a priority when the commission’s
membership was allowed to lapse.

Before the terms ended, he said, the members decided to
recommend who should serve a second term and offering the names of possible new

The final list, he said, arrived on his desk a week before
the trip began “and now it is going through the normal channels in the

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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