SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Pope Francis expressed “pain and shame” on Tuesday over a sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Chile, seeking forgiveness for a crisis that has scarred its credibility and left many faithful skeptical of reform.
Francis spoke as the number of Catholic churches that have been attacked in the country in the past week rose to eight, both in the capital and in southern regions that are home to indigenous people.
Police in riot gear dispersed some 200 demonstrators trying to make their way to a park where the pope said Mass for some 400,000 people after making his remarks about abuse.
“Here I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church,” he said in the presidential palace, drawing sustained applause, including from President Michelle Bachelet and diplomats.
“I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask for forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again,” he said.
Catholics have been upset with Francis’ appointment in 2015 of Bishop Juan Barros to head the small diocese of Osorno in south-central Chile.
Barros, who attended Tuesday’s Mass, has been accused of protecting his former mentor, Father Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty in a Vatican investigation in 2011 of abusing teenage boys over many years. Karadima has denied the allegations and Barros said he was unaware of any wrongdoing.
But the scandal has gripped Chile, and, along with growing secularization, has hurt the standing of a Church that defended human rights during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
A poll by Santiago-based think tank Latinobarometro this month showed that the number of Chileans calling themselves Catholics fell to 45 percent last year, from 74 percent in 1995.
A group opposed to the pope’s visit posted on Twitter: “No more abuse, no more cover-ups, no more hypocrisy.”
At least eight Catholic churches have been attacked in Chile over the past week, including one with a homemade bomb where vandals left a pamphlet reading: “Pope Francis, the next bomb will be in your robe.”