SANTIAGO -- Pope Francis begged for forgiveness Tuesday for the "irreparable damage" done to children who were raped and molested by priests, opening his visit to Chile by diving head-first into a scandal that has greatly hurt the Catholic Church's credibility here and cast a cloud over his visit.
In his first event of the day, Francis met privately with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and addressed lawmakers, judges and other authorities at La Moneda palace. They interrupted him with applause when he said he felt "bound to express my pain and shame" that some of Chile's pastors had sexually abused children in their care.
"I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again," he said.
Francis didn't refer by name to Chile's most notorious pedophile priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, who was sanctioned in 2011 by the Vatican to a lifetime of "penance and prayer" for sexually molesting minors. Nor did he refer to the fact that the emeritus archbishop of Santiago, a top papal adviser, has acknowledged he knew of complaints against Karadima but didn't remove him from ministry.
Karadima had been a politically connected, charismatic and powerful priest who ministered to a wealthy Santiago community and produced dozens of priestly vocations and five bishops. Victims went public with their accusations in 2010, after complaining for years to church authorities that Karadima would kiss and fondle them when they were teenagers.
"Sex abuse is Pope Francis' weakest spot in terms of his credibility," said Massimo Faggioli, a Vatican expert and theology professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. "It is surprising that the pope and his entourage don't understand that they need to be more forthcoming on this issue."