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Crisis of faith in Chile as pope visits amid sexual abuse scandal

Santiago, Chile – The last time a pope visited Chile was in 1987, when the then staunchly Catholic South American country was in the midst of military rule.

Even communists embraced John Paul II, because of the Chilean Church's outspoken defence of human rights.

But 31 years on, the arrival of the first Latin American pope is not provoking the same euphoria.

Chile has suffered some of the worst cases of ecclesiastic sex abuse in the region, and the Catholic Church is paying the price.

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When the former archbishop of Buenos Aires became Pope Francis in 2013, his charisma and above all his promises to reform some of the darkest practices of the Vatican, captured the imagination and admiration of much of the world, especially in his region.

He vowed that there would be zero tolerance for sex abuse within the Catholic Church and formed a special commission to investigate the issue, inviting two victims to take part.

Five years later, growing unhappiness over the Vatican's follow up on zero tolerance is casting a shadow on the papal visit here.

The pontiff's controversial decision to name Father Juan Barros as Bishop of Osorno, even though he was accused of facilitating and covering up abuses for Chile's most notorious pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima, left many stupefied.

We are not happy to receive him, because he says one thing and does another. The Church continues covering up abuses and the pope rewards the culprits.

Silvana Gonzalez, Catholic protester

And when Pope Francis was caught on video telling a pilgrim in Rome that Osorno parishioners were suffering because they were "dumb" and "twisted by the left", there was outrage.

Silvana Gonzalez is one of dozens of Catholics who protested on the steps of Osorno's Cathedral on the eve of the Pope's arrival .

"We are not happy to receive him, because he says one thing and does another. The Church continues covering up abuses and the pope rewards the culprits. And calling us dumb is an insolent offence that we cannot tolerate," Gonzalez told Al Jazeera.

Just days before the pope's arrival , the Boston-based research group bishopaccountability.org published a database listing some 70 Chilean priests, deacons, religious brothers and even a nun who have been accused of molesting children. Some remain in active ministry.

'Millions of Catholics have lost faith'

Some 30 of Osorno's parishioners are coming to Santiago for the Pope's arrival. They will be joining other protesters who say they want to hold the pope accountable.

Among them is Juan Carlos Cruz, one of three of Karadima's victims. He says the pope has betrayed Chile by defending the institution and re-victimising the survivors.

"The pope has great headlines but no follow up. Apart from Bishop Barros, we have Cardinal Errazuriz, who was rewarded by being named to the committee of eight cardinals that council him, along with George Pell, another abuser from Sydney," says Cruz. "And the current Archbishop of Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati, has been named a cardinal, when he has covered up not only our abuses but those of many others."

Pope Francis holds the book of the Gospel as he celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican [File: Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo]

Pope Francis knows that in Chile and in Peru, where he will also stop, millions of Catholics have lost faith.

Just ahead of his trip, the pope ordered the Vatican to take over an elite Catholic group in Peru, after years of charges that its founder sexually abused scores of children and adult members .

And after saying that there was no room on the pope's schedule to meet with abuse victims during his trip to Chile and Peru, the Vatican is now indicating that it won't rule it out.

These are important gestures. But Pope Francis will have to do more to inspire trust in the Catholic Church, which in Chile is now the lowest in Latin America.

"In many countries but especially in Chile, sex abuses within the church have been and continue to be very painful. Cases are still being revealed. The pope's visit here is an opportunity to tell him about these issues. What we need is an open heart to listen to what he has to say," says Javier Peralta, director of the National Commission for the Papal Visit.

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