Lima, Peru • Pope Francis wrapped up his visit to Peru on Sunday by denouncing the plague of corruption sweeping through Latin America. But controversy over his accusations that Chilean sex abuse victims slandered a bishop continued to cast a shadow over what has become the most contested and violent trip of his papacy.
A day after his top adviser on sex abuse publicly rebuked him for his Chile remarks, Francis was reminded that the Vatican has faced years of criticism for its inaction over a similar sex abuse scandal in Peru.
“Francis, here there IS proof,” read a banner hanging from a Lima building along his motorcade route Sunday.
The message was a reference to Francis’ Jan. 18 comments in Iquique, Chile, that there was not “one shred of proof” that a protege of Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, knew of Karadima’s abuse and did nothing to stop it.
Karadima’s victims have accused the bishop, Juan Barros, of complicity in the cover-up. Barros has denied the accusations, and Francis backed him by saying the victims’ claims were “all calumny.”
His comments sparked such an outcry that both the Chilean government and his own top adviser on abuse stepped in to publicly rebuke him — an extraordinary correction of a pope from both church and state. The criticisms were all the more remarkable given that they came on the Argentina-born pontiff’s home turf in Latin America.
Francis tried to move beyond the scandal Sunday, joking with cloistered nuns that they were taking advantage of his visit to finally get out and get a breath of fresh air. And he denounced a corruption scandal in Latin America that has even implicated his Peruvian host, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
In a meeting with bishops, Francis said the bribery scandal centered on Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht was “just a small anecdote” of the corruption and graft that has thrown much of Latin American politics into a state of crisis.
“If we fall into the hands of people who only understand the language of corruption, we’re toast,” the Argentine pope said in unscripted remarks.
It was the second time Francis addressed corruption during his visit to Peru, where Kuczynski narrowly escaped impeachment over his ties to Odebrecht in December. The company has admitted to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to politicians throughout the region in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.
Francis was greeted by cheering crowds at nearly every stop of his Peruvian trip. But the cloud of the church’s sex abuse scandal trailed him.
Francis’ remarks that he would only believe victims with “proof” were problematic because they were already deemed so credible by the Vatican that it sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” in 2011 based on their testimony. A Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying that while she had to drop charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, proof of his crimes wasn’t lacking.
Those same victims accused Barros of witnessing the abuse and standing by.
It is extremely rare for a cardinal to publicly criticize a pope, but Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and head of Francis’ own committee of experts on the issue, said Saturday that Francis’ remarks were “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse.” He said such expressions of disbelief made abuse survivors feel abandoned and left in “discredited exile.”
It is also rare for a government to criticize a visiting pope. But after the remarks, Chilean government spokeswoman Paula Narvaez said there was an “ethical imperative to respect victims of sexual abuse, believe them and support them.”
The issue also had resonance in Peru. Last week the Vatican took over a Peru-based Roman Catholic lay movement, Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, more than six years after first learning of sexual, physical and psychological abuse committed by its founder.
An independent investigation commissioned by the movement found that founder Luis Figari sodomized his recruits, forced them to fondle him and one another, liked to watch them “experience pain, discomfort and fear” and humiliated them in front of others. Figari’s victims have criticized the Vatican for its years of inaction and for eventually sanctioning him with what they considered a “golden exile” — retirement in Italy at a retreat house, albeit separated from the community he founded.
The banner hanging from the building along Francis’ motorcade route referred to evidence against Figari and featured a photo of him. Peruvian prosecutors recently announced they wanted to arrest him.
It was not clear if Francis would refer to the Sodalitium scandal on his final day in Peru, which was to feature a Mass at an airfield expected to draw hundreds of thousands. In contrast, Francis’ send-off from Chile drew only 50,000 people, a fraction of the number expected.
“Hopefully early tomorrow, myself and all of Peru will get a chance to see him up close,” said Nicolas Astete, one of more than 3,000 people who gathered Saturday night outside the Apostolic Nunciature in Lima, hoping for a glimpse of the pope before he retired for the evening.
“Come here!” the crowds cried as Francis made his way to the papal embassy.
During his seven-day trip in Chile and Peru, Francis personally apologized to survivors of priests who sexually abused them, traveled deep into the Amazon to meet with indigenous leaders, decried the scourges of corruption and violence against women in Latin America and urged the Chilean government and radical factions of the Mapuche indigenous group to peacefully resolve one of the region’s longest-running disputes.
But the pope also attracted unprecedented rejection: At least a dozen churches across Chile were set aflame, and riot police shot tear gas at and arrested protesters in Santiago.
Associated Press video journalist Cesar Barreto contributed to this report.