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."
Vendors sold coffee and snacks as lines of papal well-wishers waited to get in the park. Some people sang religious songs.
Worshipers waved flags of their home countries. And while Chilean flags dominated, there were many flags from neighboring Argentina, the birthplace of the first pope from the Americas.
"Yes, we hope to see Francisco someday in Argentina," said Dahiana Veroitza,19, part of a contingent from southern Argentina attending the Mass. "We are all very proud of him. But it's very moving to be in his presence here in Chile as well."
The Argentine press has been filled with speculation about why Francis has not made an apostolic visit to his homeland, though he has now made four trips to South America. Some observers have suggested that the pope--well versed in the contentious political scenario of his native country--did not want a papal visit to be dragged into Argentina's divisive internal politics.
Francis arrived in Chile on Monday evening and will continue to Peru later in the week. He is expected to preach on indigenous rights, environmental destruction in the Amazon and the plight of immigrants.
In an eleventh-hour schedule shift, Francis stopped Monday evening in Santiago at the tomb of a Chilean prelate who was known as the "bishop of the poor" and who aided those seeking loved ones detained during Chile's former military dictatorship.
Francis was welcomed at Santiago's international airport by Bachelet.
The 81-year-old pope, known for his low-key style, took the passenger seat of a blue Hyundai sedan. The car traveled from the airport through the streets of the capital in a convoy of white SUVs as tens of thousands of well-wishers, many waving Vatican and Chilean flags, lined the streets.
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