Pope Francis on Thursday accused clerical sex abuse victims in Chile of slander — just days after meeting with survivors and asking for forgiveness, according to reports.
The shocking assertion came while he was speaking to reporters in Iquique about Bishop Juan Barros, who has been accused of covering up sex crimes committed by Rev. Fernando Karadima, the nation’s most notorious pedophile.
“There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny,” Francis said in defense of Barros.
“The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” he added.
The comments reportedly left reporters and local residents stunned, especially since the pope’s trip to Chile was meant to help change local opinions on the Catholic church following the Karadima scandal and other abuse cases involving church officials.
“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,” explained Patricio Navia, political science professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago.
She told the Associated Press that up until Thursday, the pope had been making headway in his fight to change the public’s opinion on the church.
“Then right before leaving, Francis turns around and says: ‘By the way, I don’t think Barros is guilty. Show me some proof,’” Navia griped.
On Tuesday, Francis sat down with victims of clerical sex abuse and openly wept with them — asking forgiveness for the “irreparable damage” they suffered over the years, according to reports.
It’s unclear if any of the people he met with were abused by Father Karadima.
The Chilean priest was found guilty of sexually abusing minors and sentenced to a “life of prayer and penitence” away from the church in 2011. Criminal charges could not be brought, though, due to the statute of limitations.
While Karadima’s victims were deemed credible by the Vatican, Francis apparently felt the need to change course on Thursday.
“He has just turned back the clock to the darkest days of this crisis,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, of the website BishopAccountability.org, which documents abuses in the Catholic Church.
“Who knows how many victims now will decide to stay hidden, for fear they will not be believed?”