SANTIAGO, Chile (CNS) -- Pope Francis met in
private Jan. 16 with survivors of sexual abuse by Chilean clergy, a Vatican
spokesman said, but his actions threatened to be overshadowed by controversy
over a Chilean bishop.
Greg Burke, the spokesman, said the pope met
with "a small group of victims of sexual abuse by priests" at the
apostolic nunciature in Santiago, Chile.
"The meeting took place in a strictly
private way, and no one else was present: only the pope and the victims,"
Burke told journalists that evening.
The private setting, he added, allowed the
group to speak freely with the pope "and recount their sufferings.
Pope Francis "listened, prayed and
cried with them," Burke said.
Also present at the press conference was
Auxiliary Bishop Fernando Ramos Perez of Santiago, secretary-general of the
Chilean bishops' conference.
Bishop Ramos addressed criticism regarding
the presence of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno at several papal events, including
the pope's meetings with the country's clergy as well as the bishops of Chile.
Bishop Barros' appointment as bishop by the
pope in 2015 drew outrage and protests due to his connection to Father Fernando
Karadima, his former mentor. Father Karadima was sentenced to a life of prayer
and penance by the Vatican after he was found guilty of sexually abusing boys.
"Bishop Barros is bishop of Osorno and
was named by the pope. All bishops have the right and responsibility to
participate at the events. That was the only reason why" he was present,
Bishop Ramos said.
Arriving in Iquique Jan. 18 at the site of
his final Mass in Chile, Pope Francis was asked by local journalists about his
support for Bishop Barros.
The pope reiterated that he has yet to see
any evidence that Bishop Barros knew or witnessed the abuses committed by his
"The day they bring me proof against
Bishop Barros, I will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It
is calumny. Is that clear?" the pope told the journalists.
On Jan. 20, Boston Cardinal Sean P.
O'Malley, "It is understandable that Pope Francis' statements yesterday in
Santiago, Chile, were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by
clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message 'If you cannot
prove your claims then you will not be believed' abandon those who have
suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate
survivors to discredited exile.
"Not having been personally involved in
the cases that were the subject of yesterday's interview, I cannot address why
the Holy Father chose the particular words he used at that time. What I do
know, however, is that Pope Francis fully recognizes the egregious failures of
the church and its clergy who abused children and the devastating impact those
crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones," Cardinal O'Malley
Cardinal O'Malley was traveling to Peru on a
previously scheduled trip. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston said the
trip was not related to his statement on Bishop Barros, but that he expected
the cardinal would "be with the Holy Father at some point, as he normally
is when he accompanies him on a papal trip."
Pope Francis named Cardinal O'Malley
president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors when he
established the body in 2014. The initial members' terms of office expired in
December and, as of mid-January, the Vatican had not announced new members.
Earlier Jan. 16, the pope asked forgiveness
from the victims of sexual abuse during an address to government authorities
and members of Chile's diplomatic corps, expressing his "pain and shame at
the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church."
Burke said it was significant the pope
addressed the issue of clergy sex abuse during his meeting with government
authorities "because normally he speaks about it when meeting with bishops
"The fact that he spoke there means
that it is an evil not only for the church but for society," Burke said.