Pope Francis leaves Rome this weekend for a tour of Chile and Peru amid renewed accusations that he is failing to tackle allegations of clerical sexual abuse after scandals in both countries.
The visit comes as the pope seeks to shore up the Catholic church faith against the loss of followers in two of South America’s most conservative nations.
During the week-long visit, the pope will also travel to the Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado in Peru, where he will meet indigenous leaders and is expected to expand on the environmental message of his 2015 encyclical on climate change .
But the tour is likely to be overshadowed by the issue of sexual abuse within the church.
Earlier this week, the Vatican took over a Peru-based Catholic sect whose founder has been accused of sexual and psychological abuse. Meanwhile, in Chile – where the pope arrives on Monday – activists have promised protest every day of the visit over his 2015 appointment of a bishop accused of covering up for one of the country’s most notorious paedophiles.
On Wednesday, the Vatican said it had appointed a commissioner to oversee the lay Catholic movement Sodalitium of Christian Life, weeks after Peruvian prosecutors announced they were seeking the arrest on charges of sexual, physical and psychological abuse, of the group’s founder, Luis Fernando Figari, and five other members.
The Pope had shown “particular attention to the gravity of the information”, the statement added.
But Pedro Salinas, an author and former Sodalitium member who first unveiled the abuse allegations, called it a “sensationalist manoeuvre” ahead of the trip.
Figari moved to Rome in 2010, years after allegations of abuse in the group first emerged, and the Vatican only opened an investigation in 2016. “It’s another symptom of the disdain and apathy with which the supreme pontiff approaches the principal ill which afflicts the Catholic church,” Salinas said.
Victims’ groups in Chile and Peru have invited prominent campaigners against child abuse within the Catholic Church to join them during the pontiff’s visit.
Among them is Peter Saunders, founder of UK-based Napac which supports victims of abuse, and a former member of the Vatican’s commission examining the issue of clerical sex abuse.
Saunders said he had been invited to “stand in solidarity” with the people of Osorno, where outrage has focussed on Pope Francis’s 2015 appointment of Juan Barros as local bishop – despite accusations that Barros turned a blind eye to abuse against minors by a paedophile priest called Fernando Karadima.
Karadima was forced to retire by the Vatican 2011 after an internal inquiry found him guilty of sexually abusing minors.
“Once again the Vatican – under pressure from survivors and civil authorities – is being forced to show some willingness to take action,” said Saunders, who was dismissed from the Holy See’s inquiry into the issue in 2016.
“It’s not good enough. The church should fully pledge to hand over everything it has on this man and the many other alleged criminals lurking in its ranks – or living under Vatican protection,” he adds.
Local activists say that their requests to meet with the Pope had gone unanswered.
“The church should be a place you can openly trust, and not an institution in which the shepherds eat the lambs,” said one protest leader, Juan Carlos Claret.
Elsewhere in Chile, Francis is likely to face a rough reception from indigenous Mapuche who are demanding the withdrawal of all churches from their ancestral lands.
“John Paul II asked for forgiveness from the Mapuche for all the atrocities that were committed during the conquest and colonial period,” said Jorge Hueque, a spokesman for the Mapuche parliament.
“But the Catholic church has never made any attempt to return the lands that they took from us or make any type of retribution,” he said.
Pope Francis can expect a friendlier reception in Peru with an encounter with more than 1,000 indigenous Amazonians in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the jungle Madre de Dios region.
Julio Cusurichi, the president of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River, said that the visit of a “world leader” as an opportunity to highlight their fight to preserve the rainforest and thus combat climate change.
“Contact (with the church) has not always been good for us, the indigenous, but in the current circumstances we must join forces against the overwhelming push for extractive industries,” said Cusurichi, the 2007 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
He said he believed the Pope would support their push to obtain land titles in a region which lost more than 200 sq km of forest last year alone due to illegal gold mining, agriculture and roads used for logging.
The apostolic bishop for Puerto Maldonado, Monseñor David Martínez, said the pope had made a point of visiting the Amazon, because he understood the importance of the region in the fight against climate change.
Francis intends to publicly spend time with people who are still “seen as second and third class citizens” , Martínez added.
On his last day in Chile, Pope Francis will meet two victims of the dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet.
In Peru, Gisela Ortiz, who leads a group of family members of victims of the 1990s government of Alberto Fujimori – who was recently pardoned – said they hoped for a similar “gesture of solidarity”.