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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Pope apologises to victims abused by Chilean priest

But Francis defended a bishop who was accused of covering up for his fellow clergy member

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard his flight to Italy at the end of the trip to South America. EPA/LUCA ZENNARO
Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard his flight to Italy at the end of the trip to South America. EPA/LUCA ZENNARO

Pope Francis apologised for insisting that victims of paedophile priests show “proof” to be believed, saying he realised it was a “slap in the face” to victims that he never intended.

But he doubled down on defending a Chilean bishop accused by victims of covering up for the country’s most notorious paedophile priest, and he repeated that anyone who makes such accusations without providing evidence is guilty of slander.

Francis issued the partial mea culpa in an airborne press conference late on Sunday as he returned home from Chile and Peru, where the clergy abuse scandal and his own comments plunged the Catholic Church in Chile into renewed crisis and revived questions about whether Francis “gets it” about abuse.

The pope insisted that to date no one had provided him with evidence that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in keeping quiet about the perversions of the Reverend Fernando Karadima, the charismatic Chilean priest who was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011 for molesting and fondling minors in his Santiago parish.

Flying home from the most contested trip of his papacy, Francis said Mr Barros would remain bishop of Osorno, Chile, as long as there’s no evidence implicating him in the cover-up.

“I can’t condemn him because I don’t have evidence,” the pope said. “But I’m also convinced that he’s innocent.”

Karadima was removed from ministry and sentenced by the Vatican in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer based on the testimony of his victims, who said they were all molested by him in the well-off parish he headed in the El Bosque area of Santiago. A Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying that while she had to drop criminal charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, proof of his crimes wasn’t lacking.

The victims testified before Chilean prosecutors, and have said publicly for years that Barros, one of Karadima’s proteges, witnessed the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

Mr Barros denies the accusations.

“The best thing is for those who believe this to bring the evidence forward,” Pope Francis said. “In this moment I don’t think it’s this way, because I don’t have it, but I have an open heart to receive them.”

Juan Carlos Cruz, the most vocal of the accusers against Karadima and Mr Barros who testified in court about the cover-up, responded with a statement to The Associated Press: “If he wanted evidence, why didn’t he reach out to us when we were willing to reaffirm the testimony that not only us, but so many witnesses, have been providing for more than 15 years?”

Pope Francis, though, repeated again that anyone who makes an accusation without providing evidence is guilty of slander.

“Someone who accuses insistently without evidence, this is calumny,” he said. “If I say ‘you stole something, you stole something’, I’m slandering you because I don’t have evidence.”

He acknowledged that he misspoke when he said he needed to see “proof” to believe the accusations, saying it was a legal term that he didn’t intend. He corrected himself and used the term “evidence” instead, which he said could include testimony.

“Here I have to apologise because the word ‘proof’ hurt them. It hurt a lot of abused people,” the pope said. “I know how much they suffer. And to hear that the pope told them to their face that they need to bring a letter with proof? It’s a slap in the face.”

The Barros scandal dominated Pope Francis’ trip to Chile and Peru, and led to a remarkable Church-state public rebuke of the pope.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the pope’s top adviser on abuse, issued a public criticism saying Pope Francis’ words were a “source of great pain for survivors” and that such expressions had the effect of making them feel abandoned and left to “discredited exile”. The Chilean government spokeswoman, Paula Narvaez, said there was an “ethical imperative to respect victims of sexual abuse, believe them and support them”.

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