On his first full day in Chile on Tuesday Pope Francis immediately confronted the issue of sex abuse by the country's Catholic clergy, apologized and said he felt ashamed -- just hours after several Chilean churches were reportedly firebombed.
Here I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church, Francis said while addressing Chilean government officials, including President Michelle Bachelet, other officials, representatives and the diplomatic corps in the capitol city of Santiago.
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.
Earlier in the day, authorities said three churches were firebombed in Chile, two in the southern Araucania region and a third in Puento Alto, just south of the capital. They were among nine churches that have been attacked in the country since Friday.
Thousands of Chileans have reportedly left the church recently, which many believe is a result of both the country's increasingly secular beliefs and scandals involving sex abuse by the clergy that were finally made public.
In 2010, information came to light that a well-known and powerful priest known as a father figure for the Chilean elite had been sexually abusing minors in his high-class Santiago parish for decades and the church hierarchy allegedly protected him.
After many complaints, the church carried out an internal investigation and found the priest, Father Karadima, guilty of sexual abuse of minors and psychological abuse. In 2011, he was ordered to live a life of prayer and penitence that banned him for life from public duties as a priest, especially giving confession and spiritual guidance to parishioners.
In 2015, many of the country's Catholics were angered by the Pope’s decision to appoint a bishop who had been one of Karadima's followers to the southern city of Oserno. Bishop Juan Barros has denied knowledge of Karadima’s behavior as a sexual predator.
Tensions have flared ahead of the Pope’s arrival in Chile; his trip has already been marred by attacks on churches carried out by political groups and campaigners for indigenous rights. Nine churches were attacked in recent days, with three attacked on Monday night, including two in Araucania, an economically disadvantaged region the pope is scheduled to visit on Wednesday.
After his speech Francis went to O’Higgins Park where he celebrated his first open-air mass in Chile. An estimated 400,000 people attended, according to Chilean authorities; thousands of Argentines came from the pope's native Argentina to see him. A colorful, pious crowd, many dressed in traditional costumes, sang and clapped at the sight of the pope.
However not all was peaceful, police in riot gear dispersed some 200 demonstrators trying to make their way to the park. Police charged protesters with truncheons and used water cannons in an effort to disperse the crowd. Footage shows police bundling a number of protesters into the back of vans.
On Wednesday, he is scheduled to travel south to Temuco to meet the Mapuche native people, listen to their grievances and celebrate mass there. The following day, he will travel north to Iquique where he plans to celebrate mass again and speak about immigration.