Key cardinal rebukes pope over abuse comment in rare move

TRUJILLO, Peru (Reuters) – A key US cardinal distanced himself on Saturday from comments by Pope Francis on sexual abuse, saying they had caused “great pain,” a remarkable move pointing to divisions in the Roman Catholic Church over how to treat accusers.

The implicit public rebuke of the pope by one of his top advisers came after two days of pointed attacks from victims and their advocates, and was another setback for Francis’ attempts to come to grips with sexual abuse in the Church.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said in an unusually blunt statement that “it is understandable” that the pope’s comments in Chile on Thursday were “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator.”

In response to a question from a reporter on accusations against Juan Barros, a Chilean bishop appointed by the pope in 2015 who is accused of protecting a pedophile, the pope said:

“The day I see proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk. There is not a single piece of evidence against him. It is all slander. Is that clear?”

The pope’s comments appearing to dismiss the credibility of accusers was widely criticized by victims, their advocates and newspaper editorials in Chile and the pope’s native Argentina.

Barros has been accused of protecting his former mentor, the Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty in a Vatican investigation in 2011 of abusing teenage boys over many years.

Karadima denies the allegations, and Barros said he was unaware of any wrongdoing. The Barros-Karadima case has riveted Chile for years.

O’Malley’s statement on the pope’s choice of language said:

“Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims, then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

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