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Pope Francis clashes with abuse survivors over bishop

Pope Francis arrives at the site at Lobitos Beach, near the northern Chilean city of Iquique (Getty Images)

Pope Francis has defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up sex abuse, saying allegations against him are “calumny”.

Abuse survivors accuse Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno of staying quiet after allegedly witnessing Fr Fernando Karadima abusing minors. Fr Karadima was later convicted, and sentenced by the Vatican to a life of penance and prayer.

Juan Borros’s appointment as bishop drew large protests, however Pope Francis has repeatedly stood by him, saying there is no evidence against him.

Asked by reporters on his the last day of his visit to Chile whether he still stood by the bishop, Pope Francis responded: “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will speak. There is not a single piece of evidence against him, it is all calumny. Is that clear?”

Bishop Barros thanked the Pope for his comments, saying he had “only words of gratitude”.

“What he has said is very clear,” the bishop added. “I will continue in my ministry in service of the Church.”

The comments have angered abuse survivors, however, who described the Pope’s words as “offensive”. Juan Carlos Cruz, one the bishop’s most vocal accusers, said: “As if I could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all.

“These people are truly crazy, and the pontiff talks about atonement to the victims. Nothing has changed, and his plea for forgiveness is empty.”

The appointment of Bishop Barros has deeply divided the diocese of Osorno. Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesman for a group of lay Catholics in the diocese, asked: Isn’t the pastoral problem that we’re living (in Osorno) enough to get rid of him?”

According to AP, Patricio Navia, a political scientist at Diego Portales University in Santiago, said Chileans appreciated that Pope Francis had gone much further than local bishops in acknowledging the sexual abuse scandal.

“Then right before leaving, Francis turns around and says: ‘By the way, I don’t think Barros is guilty. Show me some proof,'” Navia said.

The comment will likely erase any goodwill the Pope had won over the issue, he added.