January 26, 2018
By Nicole Winfield
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis apologized for insisting that victims of pedophile priests show “proof” to be believed, saying he realized 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 pedophile 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 Sunday as he returned home from Chile and Peru, where the clergy abuse scandal and his own comments plunged the Chilean church into renewed crisis and revived questions about whether Francis “gets it” about abuse.
Francis 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 Rev. 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 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,” Francis 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 swank 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.
Three of the victims testified before Chilean prosecutors and others have also said publicly for years that Barros, one of Karadima’s proteges, witnessed the abuse and did nothing to stop it.
Barros denies the accusations.
“The best thing is for those who believe this to bring the evidence forward,” 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 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?”
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