Facing criticism for first ignoring then defending a suspected pedophile in Chile's Catholic Church, Pope Francis is sending the Vatican's main sex-abuse investigator to the Latin American nation to examine claims that a bishop helped bury the scandal.
US Cardinal Condemns Pope's Comments on Sexual Abuse in Chile
The pontiff was heavily criticized during his recent visit for protecting Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, saying there was "not a shred of evidence." Pope Francis went so far as to accuse Barros' victims, who allege he was present when another higher-up priest molested them, of "slander."
"The day I receive proof against Archbishop Barros, I will speak," the pope snapped at reporters during an official trip to Chile two weeks ago. "There is not one proof against him, it's all calumny. Is that clear?"
Barros' main accusers – Jose Andres Murillo, Juan Carlos Cruz and James Hamilton – claim the bishop witnessed Reverend Fernando Karadima sexually abuse them. Karadima was found guilty of molestation in 2011.
In order to cover-up the controversy, Chile's clergy wanted Barros take a mandatory year-long sabbatical, but Pope Francis refused to believe the allegations and instead promoted him to head the Osorno diocese in Southern Chile. The 2015 appointment has split the parish ever since.
"We were surprised by the pope's decision, because we spent three years trying to reach him to put an end to this issue," said Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesman for Osorno's parishioners.
Claret said the pope is instigating the investigation in response to media pressure rather the victims' testimonies.
The Vatican said Tuesday that new information had emerged regarding the case and that Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta would go to "listen to those who want to submit information in their possession."
In 2005, Scicluna uncovered evidence of pedophilia committed by a Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, which eventually led to Maciel's removal from office.
Cruz, who says he was kissed by Karadima in Barros' presence, responded on Twitter to the pope's initial demand for "proof." "As if I could've taken a selfie or a picture while Karadima abused me or others with Juan Barros standing aside seeing all of it," he posted.
"These people at the top are crazy and @Pontifex_es talks of reparations for victims. We continue the same and his apology remains empty."
The pope eventually apologized for his outburst and initial defense of Barros, acknowledging that his actions had caused "pain" to Karadima's alleged victims.
The Osorno bishop and his accusers have yet to comment on the Vatican's latest decision, Reuters reports.
According to U.S.-based NGO Bishop Accountability, almost 80 clergymen have been accused of sexually abusing children since 2000.