SANTIAGO, Chile — Pope Francis flew in to Chile’s capital Monday night for a visit expected to be met with protests over sexual abuse by priests and confronted by many Chileans deeply skeptical about the Roman Catholic Church.
It’s the pope’s first visit to the Andean nation of 17 million people since taking the reins of the church in 2013. It comes at a time when many Chileans are furious over Francis’ 2015 decision to appoint a bishop close to the Rev. Fernando Karadima, who the Vatican found guilty in 2011 of abusing dozens of minors over decades.
The Rev. Juan Barros, bishop of the southern city of Osorno, has always denied he knew what Karadima was doing when he was the priest’s protege, a position that many Chileans have a hard time believing.
“It’s not just time for the pope to ask for forgiveness for the abuses but also to take action,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of Karadima.
Cruz added that if it wasn’t possible to jail bad bishops, “at the very least they can be removed from their positions.”
After deplaning, Francis was greeted by President Michelle Bachelet and a band played while the two walked on a red carpet as night began to fall. The pope traveled in a black sedan to the center of the city, flanked by several cars. He then transferred to a popemobile, waving to small crowds of well-wishers who lined up along avenues.
Crowds were notably thin, particularly compared to papal visits in other Latin American countries.
“Long live the pope!” yelled some as he passed by in the pope mobile.
Others carried signs criticizing the pope or extolling him to act.
“Stop the abuse, Francis!” read one sign. “You can so you must!”
Over the next three days, Francis is scheduled to celebrate Mass in Santiago, the southern city of Temuco and the northern city of Iquique. On Thursday, the pope will go to Peru for a three-day visit.
Francis’ trip was aimed at highlighting the plight of immigrants and indigenous peoples and underscoring the need to preserve the Amazon rain forest. However, sexual abuse by priests has taken front and center in the weeks before his arrival.
Hours before Francis landed, activists on issues related to sex abuse by priests called for sanctions against both abusers and anyone who helped cover up their actions.
About 200 people attended the first of several activities aimed at making the sex abuse scandal a central topic of Francis’ time in the country.
The majority of Chileans continue to declare themselves Roman Catholics, but the church has lost the influence and moral authority it once enjoyed thanks to the scandals, secularization and an out-of-touch clerical caste.
“I used to be a strong believer and churchgoer,” said Blanca Carvucho, a 57-year-old secretary in Santiago. “All the contradictions have pushed me away.”
To be sure, many eagerly awaited a chance to see the pope and celebrate their faith. Moises Lopez, a 35-year-old musician, took a bus from northern Chile to Santiago in hopes of seeing the pontiff.
“I consider myself a pilgrim,” Lopez said. “I could have stayed comfortably at home and watched the pope on television, but I prefer to make an effort to see him in person once in my life.”
The pope will try to inject new energy into the church during his visit, which gets underway in earnest Tuesday with a series of protocol visits for church and state.
He also plans sessions with migrants, members of Chile’s Mapuche indigenous group and victims of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship. It remains to be seen if he will meet with sex abuse survivors. A meeting wasn’t on the agenda, but such encounters never are.
Chile’s church earned wide respect during the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet because it spoke out against the military’s human rights abuses, but it began a downward spiral in 2010 when victims of a charismatic, politically connected priest came forward with allegations that he had kissed and fondled them.
Local church leaders had ignored the complaints against Karadima for years, but they were forced to open an official investigation after the victims went public and Chilean prosecutors started investigating. The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for his crimes, but the church leadership hasn’t won back Chileans’ trust for having covered up Karadima’s crimes for so long.
“The Karadima case created a ferocious wound,” said Chile’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mariano Fernandez Amunategui. He and others inside the Vatican speak openly of a Chilean church “in crisis” as a result, a remarkable admission of the scandal’s toll on a church that wielded such political clout that it helped stave off laws legalizing divorce and abortion until recently.
Chileans’ disenchantment has even affected their views of the pope himself. A recent survey by Latinobarometro, a respected regional polling firm, found that Chile had a lower esteem for history’s first Latin American pope than 18 other Central and South American countries. Even among Chilean Catholics, only 42 percent approve of the job Francis is doing, compared to a regional average of 68 percent.
“The serious error of the Catholic Church in the Karadima case wasn’t that the case existed, which the church couldn’t avoid because it did happen, but rather the way in which the church reacted,” said Latinobarometro’s Marta Lagos.
Last week, The Associated Press reported that Francis had told Chile’s bishops that the Vatican was so concerned about the Karadima fallout that it had planned to ask Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops to resign and take a year sabbatical. But the plan fell through, and Francis went through with the appointment of Barros to Osorno, even criticizing parishioners against the decision.
“The people of Osorno suffer for stupidity,” said Francis in 2015.
Associated Press writers Peter Prengaman and Patricia Luna contributed to this report.