ROME – Acting as the interim replacement for a cardinal subpoenaed by civil prosecutors for alleged sex abuse cover-ups, and facing questions about his own record in responding to abuse charges, the new man in Santiago, Chile, says he’s got only one “pastoral proposal,” and it’s expressed in his motto as a bishop: “To serve and to love.”
“What worries us is not the money [that the archdiocese will have to pay to survivors of clerical abuse], but how can we help those victims heal, and above all, we want to guarantee that they, and everyone else, helps us build a different future where these things don’t happen again,” said Bishop Celestino Aos, named March 23 as the apostolic administrator of Santiago following the resignation of Cardinal Riccardo Ezzati.
“How could we let these things happen… things I didn’t even dream could happen, and that do,” Aos told reporters. “What can we do to guarantee that they don’t happen again?”
Aos’s nomination amounts to the latest twist in a long-running attempted cleanup of Church leadership in Chile, which Francis set in motion in May, when he summoned all the bishops to Rome.
In Rome, all the Chilean bishops handed in non-binding offers to step down to the pope. Among other things, the fact that they had no canonical status means that the pope wasn’t bound by the norm of having only three months to accept the resignations.
Aos came to Rome last week for a series of meetings with various Vatican dicasteries, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which among other things deals with cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors, to the Congregation for Bishops, where he’s asked for auxiliary bishops to assist him in running Chile’s largest diocese.
On Friday he met Francis and on Saturday the 74-year-old Capuchin Franciscan went to Assisi. On Sunday, he said Mass in Rome with Chilean priests currently serving in the Eternal City.
Of his conversation with Francis, Aos said it was “long,” lasting over an hour, when such meetings tend to run half that time.
“It was cordial, the Holy Father is always very welcoming, and it was just he and I,” Aos told reporters on Monday. “The issues we spoke about, as you can imagine, are those concerning a church as important as that of Santiago, which is very complex.”
“St. Paul compared the Church to a body with its members,” he continued. “And with the Holy Father we spoke not only about our brothers who have, in some way, been wounded by abuse, but also about the wealth of the Church of Santiago, that has the newly wed, the children, the youth, the elderly.”
Francis, Aos said, insisted on the fact that he’s the shepherd of the entire Church of Santiago.
Regarding his willingness to cooperate with civil authorities, currently investigating his two predecessors and several other bishops on charges of either cover-up or of abuse, Aos said that the Church in Chile will do everything possible.
“We don’t live in a bubble, we don’t have privileges to be treated as first class citizens nor should we be treated as third class citizens: We’re subject to civil law,” he said.
“And if there is a person of the Church, be that it’s a priest, a bishop or a layperson, who commits a crime, he must submit to the courts and must accept the consequences of his actions,” he said. “This is the governing principle. If as an institution, in some cases the Church failed to do its job well and the courts determine that we must compensate those affected, we will do it.”
Days after being appointed, in fact, the Chilean courts ruled that the Church of Santiago will have to pay $450,000 to three victims of former priest Fernando Karadima, after the courts found the Catholic Church had failed to act accordingly when it first received the allegations.
Francis, Aos said, “is very close” to the people and Church of Chile, and he’s “striving to give the faithful the best pastoral government possible.”
According to the bishop, the pontiff realizes that he’s the shepherd of the global Church, and that as such, understands the Church in Chile is living moments “of great difficulty and pain, and he wants to be close to us.”
Francis also reportedly asked Aos to tell the Chilean people that it’s time to “look ahead, with faith, with hope,” acknowledging the past, but also with the certainty that behind the actions of the men of the Church there’s also the presence of God, “whom we’re about to celebrate: he died on the cross, rose again and he’s with us.”
On Monday Aos met with American Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who’s currently in Rome to participate in the meeting of the council of cardinals who advice the pope on the reform of the Church’s government. Last week, the archbishop of Boston also participated in the general assembly of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he heads.
Though the situation in Chile and the United States is different, Aos said it’s “comforting” to know that O’Malley is “praying for us.”
Asked about allegations that he didn’t act properly when he was Promotor of Justice in the diocese of Valparaiso, where several ex-seminarians accused priests and even then-Bishop Gonzalo Duarte of abuse and cover-up, Aos said he has a “clear conscience” about having done the work he’d been asked to do.
He said that as a Promotor of Justice, it wasn’t his role to give a sentence, which pertains to a judge.
“I don’t know how the pope sees me,” Aos said during a candid moment of a press conference held in Rome’s famous Via della Conciliazione leading to St. Peter’s Square. “I think he sees me as a poor Capuchin with more than a few years.”
“The pope knows that it’s not enough to replace one or two people,” he said. “The whole of society and of the Church needs to change its heart.”
“Signing decrees is not enough,” Aos said. “If it was, I’d be signing them already. We need to change hearts.”