SANTIAGO, Chile -- Pope Francis on Tuesday opened his weeklong visit to Chile and Peru with a somber apology for sexual abuse by priests, a scandal that has roiled the Catholic Church.
"I cannot help but express the pain and shame, shame that I feel over the irreparable harm caused to children by church ministers," Francis said at the La Moneda government palace in Santiago, the capital, ahead of a meeting with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
"It is fair to ask for forgiveness," he said.
Later, Francis presided over a Mass with several hundred thousand pilgrims gathered under the blazing Southern Hemisphere summer sun at the capital's O'Higgins Park.
The sexual abuse crisis has divided the church in Chile. Francis was criticized for appointing a bishop, Juan Barrios, to head a diocese in southern Chile. Barrios was accused of protecting a mentor, Father Fernando Karadima, whom the Vatican has accused of abusing teenage boys for years. Karadima has denied the allegations and Barrios has said he was unaware of any wrong-doing.
The scandals, however, have eroded many Chileans' faith in their church. Once a heavily Catholic country, Chile has seen numbers of churchgoers fall, and a recent poll showed only 45 percent of Chileans calling themselves Catholic.
Francis chose his first public comments to address the crisis. Victims have sought a meeting with him though none has yet been arranged.
The last papal visit to Chile was 30 years ago in 1987, by Pope John Paul II, when the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet still ruled.
Early Tuesday, tens of thousands lined up in the predawn hours outside O'Higgins Park in anticipation of Francis' arrival for the open-air Mass.
"It's a great honor to be here," said Jacqueline Olguien, 48, part of a group of 15 from a parish in Santiago. "This pope speaks to us directly."