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Pope Francis Criticized for Calling Priest Sex Abuse Protesters 'Dumb'

Former survivors of abuse say the pope's words are "hurtful" and undermine remarks about accountability and transparency made during his US tour.
October 8, 2015, 5:45pm
Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/EPA

On the eve the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, for which Pope Francis is widely believed to be a top contender, the pontiff was recorded calling Chilean protesters "dumb" for rallying against the bishop of Osorno, Chile, who has been linked to one of the country's most notorious clerical child molesters.

"The Osorno community is suffering because it's dumb," Pope Francis told visitors to Vatican City in St. Peter's Square, according to one translation by the New York Times. It "has let its head be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof."

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"Don't be led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this," he added.

The "leftists" are presumed to be socialist members of Chile's Congress, who have signed a petition opposing Barros's appointment as bishop.

The shocking comments, which were filmed in May, but released by a Chilean media outlet Friday, follows ongoing protests over the pope's controversial appointment of Juan Barros as Bishop of Osorno, in March. To victims, the pope's words appeared incongruous to the widely held image of a benevolent, non-judgmental pope, who has met with numerous abuse survivors and recently promised more transparency and "accountability for all" in the ongoing scandal during his recent US tour.

"It's been extremely hurtful to so many and to think that the pope himself would make these kinds of statements," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group supporting clergy abuse victims. "It almost seems that gentle demeanor of Pope Francis is just a cover for his ugly feelings about abuse victims."

Related: Sex Abuse Survivors Aren't Happy With the Pope's Comments on Bishops' 'Courage'

At the time of Barros's appointment, the Vatican released a statement saying the appointment had been "carefully examined" and the recommending body, the Congregation for Bishops, found no "objective reasons" to block the nomination.

The controversy stems from Barros's ties to his former mentor, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, whom the Vatican found guilty of sexually and psychologically abusing minors over two decades in the '80s and '90s. Karadima was banned from serving in the church and sentenced to a "life of prayer and penitence" in 2011. A Chilean judge dismissed a criminal case against the then 81-year-old later that year because the statute of limitations had expired on the cases, but a suit between the diocese of Santiago de Chile and victims seeking compensation and an apology is ongoing.

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From the beginning Barros's appointment has been thorny. He was forced to cut short his own inauguration mass as protesters shoved the priest, threw things at him and shouted "pedophile" and "get out!" outside St. Matthew's church.

At least three survivors of Karadima's abuse, have accused Barros, who formerly served as Chile's military chaplain prior to his bishophood, of knowing about the assaults and even being present on occasion as it was happening. Barros has continued to deny the allegations.

Related: Pope Francis Accused of Shielding Priests Who Sexually Abused Children

Late last month, the pope acknowledged that bishops had covered up child abuse cases in a press gathering aboard the papal plane, just hours after he met with child sex abuse survivors in Philadelphia. Earlier during his US tour, the pope had praised Bishops in the US for their "courage" over the church's decades-old child sex abuse scandal, to the disappointment and anger of victims.

Francis later explained his actions, saying his offer of comfort to bishops were not intended to downplay the abuse.

"I felt the need to express compassion because something really terrible happened," he said. "And many of them suffered who did not know of this."

But Blaine says that the pope's statements continue to be contradictory and said an apology doesn't go far enough.

"We were hopeful that this new pope was going to embrace victims," she said. "If Pope Francis wanted to do the right thing, we hope he will not apologize, we hope he will instead remove Barros and stop elevating those clerics who conceal and enable the perpetuation of these crimes."

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