Pope Francis acknowledged that he has made “serious errors of assessment and perception” in the case of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who has been accused of covering up for a pedophile priest and whom the pontiff has repeatedly defended.
“I recognize and I want you to communicate this accurately, that I have made serious errors of judgement and perception of the situation, especially due to lack of truthful and balanced information,” Francis wrote in a letter to the Chilean bishops.
In the following weeks, Francis will meet in Rome with some victims of clerical sexual abuse from Chile and individually ask them for their forgiveness, according to the spokesman for the Chilean bishops’ conference.
Ahead of those meetings, announced by spokesman Jaime Coiro via Twitter as the letter was being read out in Chile, Francis said that “from this moment, I apologize to all those whom I offended and I hope to be able to do it personally, in the coming weeks, in the meetings that I will have with representatives of the people interviewed.”
In addition, the 32 Chilean bishops who make up the conference will be travelling to Rome in the third week of May, summoned by Francis in the letter. During this meeting, the pontiff will share with them the conclusions he has reached after reading a report presented to him by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta.
“I plan to call you to Rome to discuss the conclusions of the aforementioned visit and my conclusions,” Francis said, announcing what will be the biggest gathering of bishops to discuss clerical sex abuse in response to a papal summons.
In April 2002, 12 U.S. cardinals and the president and vice-president of the bishops’ conference met in Rome to lay the groundwork for the assembly of the U.S. bishops that took place later that year in Dallas, during which the policies on how to deal with child sexual abuse allegations against priests were drafted. Pope John Paul II was present at that Rome meeting.
The meeting, Francis wrote, will be a “fraternal moment, without prejudice or preconceived ideas, with the sole objective of making the truth shine in our lives.”
Francis sent Scicluna, the Vatican’s former top prosecutor for sex abuse crimes in the Church under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, to listen to those who have “manifested their will to make known elements they possess” against Barros, appointed by the Argentine pontiff in 2015 to the Diocese of Osorno.
Scicluna’s most celebrated prosecution involved the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was found guilty in 2006 and sentenced to a life of “prayer and penance.”
Scicluna and his colleague, Father Jordi Bertomeu, spent nearly two weeks in Chile and New York earlier this year interviewing Father Fernando Karadima’s victims, who for years have denounced Barros’ denials that he witnessed Karadima’s abuse. The two presented their findings to the pope in a 2,300 page report on March 20.
The letter, read on Wednesday, was signed by the pope on April 8, the second Sunday of Easter, and a day in which the Catholic Church marks the feast of the Divine Mercy.
“I assure you of my prayers and I want to share with you the conviction that the present difficulties are also an occasion to reestablish the trust in the Church, broken by our mistakes and sins, and to heal wounds that haven’t stopped bleeding in Chilean society,” Francis wrote.
“When the media shame us by presenting a Church almost always in a new moon, deprived of the light of the Sun of justice and we are tempted to doubt the Easter victory of the Risen One, I believe that like St. Thomas we should not fear doubt, but fear the pretense of wanting to see without trusting the testimony of those who heard from the lips of the Lord the most beautiful promise,” Francis wrote in the letter.
The unveiling of Francis’s letter took place in Chile at a press conference, headed by Bishops Santiago Silva and Fernando Ramos, president and secretary general of the Chilean bishops’ conference. Some hours earlier, Coiro announced through Twitter that the letter had been written by Francis following the report by Scicluna.
The pope sent the archbishop to Chile after his Jan. 15-18 visit to the Latin American country. He began that trip issuing an apology for the “irreparable damage” caused by clerical sexual abuse, and meeting with victims of abuse.
However, throughout his visit, protesters held signs across the path of the popemobile, accusing Barros of a cover-up.
On his last day in Chile and before heading to Peru, Francis told a journalist that “there’s not a single proof against [Barros], it’s all a calumny.” Days later, during his traditional in-flight press conference, the pope said that he regretted using the word “proof” when he should have said “evidence,” but stood by his words, insisting that he’s “convinced that he’s innocent.”
Yet in late January, the Vatican announced that Francis was sending Scicluna to investigate the claims of the accusers.
Barros, together with three other bishops, has been accused by survivors of the country’s most notorious pedophile priest of having witnessed and ignored the abuses committed by Karadima.
Karadima was found guilty of abuse by the Vatican in 2011 and sentenced to a life of penitence and prayer. The statute of limitations on the priest’s abuses had expired, so he was never tried by Chilean courts, though the judge handling the case in 2011 deemed the accusations to be “truthful and reliable.”
Barros and the three other bishops, who were priests when the abuses took place, have consistently denied knowing what was happening.
During Francis’s visit to Chile last January, Barros was seen at the pope’s events, concelebrating Mass with him and attending a meeting Francis had with the hierarchy of the local Church.
In a statement shared through Twitter, three of Karadima’s victims, James Hamilton, Juan Carlos Cruz and Jose Andres Murillo welcomed the pope’s letter, and acknowledged that the Vatican had reached out to invite them to Rome to meet with Francis.
“We recognize the pope’s gesture, and we are evaluating the possibility of going, ” the survivors wrote.
They also said that mistakes by the hierarchy of the Chilean Church has affected many.
“Our actions have always been aimed at acknowledgment, forgiveness and reparation” by the Church for the suffering caused, they said, adding that they will continue to work until “zero tolerance” of abuse and cover-up within the Church becomes a reality.”