On Chile abuse crisis, who led Pope Francis to make 'serious errors'?

On Chile abuse crisis, who led Pope Francis to make ‘serious errors’?

On Chile abuse crisis, who led Pope Francis to make ‘serious errors’?

Pope Francis meets with Chile's bishops in the sacristy of the cathedral in Santiago, Chile, Jan. 16. (Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring.)

As Pope Francis readies to meet both sexual abuse victims from Chile and the country's bishops in May, more questions than answers seem to surround what's happened.

ROME – In the wake of Pope Francis’s remarkable acknowledgement of having made “serious errors of assessment and perception” in handling a sexual abuse crisis in Chile, at this stage we’re left with more questions than answers – what actually happened, and who’s responsible for the pontiff’s initially stout defense of a bishop accused of cover-up.

On April 28-30, Francis will meet with three victims of Chile’s most infamous pedophile priest, Father Fernado Karadima. They are Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Andres Murillo. He’s asked them to come to Rome and they will be staying in the Santa Marta, the residence on Vatican grounds where he lives.

Two weeks later, May 14-17, Francis will be receiving the 32 Chilean bishops who are still on active duty. Among them, four were heavily influenced by Karadima and have been accused by the survivors of covering up for their former mentor.

Francis summoned the prelates to Rome in a letter he sent to them after reviewing a 2,300 page report by Archbishop Charles Scicluna.

Since the upcoming meetings between Francis and two very different groups of Chileans were announced, at least five questions continue to be pressing:

  • Francis said he’d made errors of assessment “due to lack of truthful and balanced information.” Who gave him this information?
  • Many in Osorno, where Bishop Juan Barros, a former member of Karadima’s inner circle was transferred by the pope in 2015, have protested the appointment ever since, as have the three survivors. Had the Vatican ever looked into Barros before making the transfer?
  • Who was Karadima anyway, and why did some, including the pope think the press against Barros might have been ideologically motivated?
  • In 2011, the Vatican found Karadima guilty of sexually abusing minors and sentenced him to a life of “penitence and prayer.” Is he, and the people he influenced through the parish of El Bosque, in one of Santiago’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the end of the story? Or, are there other abuse scandals waiting to be revealed?
  • As rare as both meetings might be, are they really unprecedented?

In the past week, Crux spoke with several people from Chile in an attempt to answer these questions. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, many asked to speak on condition of anonymity due to the fact that some were victims of Karadima’s psychological abuse and some work for the local hierarchy and haven’t been cleared to speak with the media.

Who gave the pope information on the Barros case?

Several bishops, including cardinals Francisco Javier Errázuriz and Ricardo Ezzati, both archbishops of Santiago, have openly denied misinforming the pope. Yet they’re often the ones singled out by victims and many local clergy.

At 84, Errázuriz is retired, but he led the Church in Santiago from 1998 to 2010. Despite his age, he continues to have an important presence in the Chilean Church, among other reasons because he sits on Francis’s council of nine cardinal advisors. He’s currently in Rome, participating in the regular meetings of the papal advisory board.

Last week he said his role as papal advisor doesn’t mean he’s tasked with informing Francis on the situation of the Chilean Church. His job on the “C9” he said, is to “give advice to the pope on the matters he consults us on.”

“It is not part of our task to inform the pope about the difficulties, the possible errors and evils that affect the Church,” Errázuriz is quoted as saying.

During a press conference last week, Ezzati said that neither he nor the Chilean Church had deceived the pope, while calling on anyone who had done so to come forward.

“Those who have committed errors should recognize them, regret and repair them,” Ezzati said at the closing of a meeting he held with the clergy of Santiago to read and talk about the pope’s letter.

Sources have described that meeting as “pointless,” with one person actually fearing it’d become a “battlefield,” which in the end didn’t happen.

However, speaking with Crux, priests who were present highlighted the fact that after Ezzati gave his closing remarks, in which he defended his actions, no priest applauded. He allegedly claimed that when it comes to clerical sexual abuse, he’d “done everything right.”

“He’s in complete denial of reality,” a priest said to Crux on Monday, four days after the meeting in Santiago’s cathedral.

Ezzati is 76 years old, meaning he’s already presented his resignation to Francis since it’s mandatory for every bishop to do so when they reach 75. He was appointed archbishop of Santiago in Dec. 2010, two months before the Vatican’s ruling against Karadima.

RELATED: In wake of abuse scandal, bishops of Chile talk resignation

Another person who’s in the eye of the storm is the papal representative in the country, Archbishop Ivo Scalpolo, who’s been in Chile since July 2011. He was transferred there by Pope Benedict XVI four months after Karadima was found guilty by the Vatican.

As nuncio, Scalpolo played a key role in appointing Barros to Osorno, since it’s part of his job to send the Vatican a list of three candidates when any given diocese is in need of a bishop. He presumably also advised the Holy See in the appointment of six other bishops who were nominated by Francis, and some of the seven appointed by Benedict during his pontificate.

The nuncio is close to turning 65, so canonically speaking, he’s not obliged to resign. He’s pledged himself to silence, choosing not to comment on the pope’s letter in public.

Though believing both men should be removed from their posts, a lay person with inside knowledge of the Chilean Church told Crux he had sufficient evidence to believe both Ezzati and Scalpolo had done everything they could to give the pope the needed information.

However, in different interviews and even on social media, some of Karadima’s victims have singled out all three as responsible for misinforming the pope.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, hand-delivered a letter from Cruz, one of the survivors, to the pope, where he detailed the abuses he suffered and the role Barros played.

O’Malley is the same cardinal who, after Francis said the accusations against Barros were a “calumny,” released a statement saying it was “understandable” that the pontiff’s language had caused “great pain.”

The Cruz letter was given to O’Malley in early 2015 by four members of the pontifical commission who’d met with Karadima’s victims.

Correspondence between Errázuriz and Ezzati leaked to Chilean media last year strongly suggests the two men were determined to block the nomination of abuse survivor Cruz to the papal commission.

Last but not least, there’s Spanish Jesuit Father Germán Arana. Reports of his role in Barros’ appointment go back to 2015, when it was revealed that the bishop had a month-long retreat in January led by Arana. Soon afterwards, the priest allegedly went to Rome, where he met with Francis and gave positive feedback on Barros.

The priest was later seen in Osorno, during Barros’ instalation Mass, which had to be cut short due to the protests inside and outside the local cathedral.

The 2012 Colazzi report

Scicluna’s visit to Chile and New York, where he met with 64 people, many of them victims, and not all of them pertaining to Karadima’s case, has been portrayed as marking a change of attitude in Francis.

Though still unknown, the contents of the report presented by Scicluna clearly affected the pope so much that it led him to pen the letter to Chile and to reach out to the survivors a week after he received the final documents.

But it wasn’t the first report a pope had requested on a former member of Karadima’s inner circle.

During the periods of Dec. 4-8 of 2011 and Jan. 25-28 of 2012, Uruguayan Bishop Carlos Colazzi visited Chile to interview close to 45 priests – including the four bishops – who at the time were members of the “Priestly Union of the Sacred Heart,” founded in the 1920s and which eventually fell under Karadima’s control.

The scope of his visit was to assess the formation process of members of the union and the group’s financial transparency.

In 2010, as allegations against the abusive priest first became public (one of the victims had gone to the diocese in 2003), ten priests decided to leave the union, which at the time was led by Bishop Andrés Arteaga, one of the four accused of cover-up.

Colazzi’s report, which is the result of what is known as an apostolic visit, was described to Crux as “superficial” at best. During the visitation, the bishop spoke with each of the members of the union once, reportedly spending “30, 40 minutes top” with each one of them.

The report, sent to the Vatican, was never published. However, sources told Crux it contained several recommendations. Reportedly, one of them was a suggestion to Ezzati not to dismember the union, so that, if even more allegations by Karadima’s victims surfaced, they would sue the union and not the diocese.

“It was an attempt to protect the Church as an institution, instead of siding with the victims,” one of the priests who received spiritual direction from Karadima told Crux on Thursday. “Deep down, the bishops saw the victims as enemies of the Church and treated them as such.”

However, Ezzati had decided to dismantle the union before Colazzi’s report came in. Witnesses claim he didn’t do so willingly.

“The archdiocese didn’t have the capacity to welcome the victims,” a second priest who was a former member of the society told Crux on Monday. “I know two of the victims very well. They are very good people. Had they found the support they needed from the Church after the sentence was made public, we could have worked with them elbow-to-elbow against clerical abuse for the past eight years.”

The second priest said the hierarchy chose to “defend the company, not its people.”

Layman Alejandro Álvarez, a lawyer and a spokesman of Catholic Voices Chile, told Crux that the Catholic Church in his country needs a “paradigm change,” to guarantee that the person and “not the corporation” is always at the center of everything, particularly when it comes to survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

Álvarez said that if a paradigm shift takes place, “there will be many changes, [including] resignations.”

Crux’s efforts to reach Colazzi, via email and on the phone, have gone unanswered.

Who is Karadima anyway, and what does ideology have to do with the crisis?

Found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 and sentenced to a life of “penitence and prayer,” Karadima was never sentenced by Chilean courts due to the country’s statute of limitations.

To this day, it’s unknown how many people were sexually abused by Karadima. Presumably, the number of people who were psychologically abused, victims of his abuse of power, or who had their consciences manipulated by the priest, is even larger.

Among those who suffered Karadima’s abuse of power is Father Samuel Fernández, who spoke with Crux on the phone on Friday. He acknowledged that when the allegations of sexual abuse first surfaced, he had doubts, “not because Karadima was a saint,” but because the abuser had been his spiritual director for many years, and being immersed “in the atmosphere, it was very difficult to recognize the abuses.”

Experts on abuse, he said, shows that people who are closest to the situation can sometimes have difficulties in accepting allegations when they first surface. Yet by the time the Vatican’s sentence came in, Fernández was personally convinced that his spiritual director was guilty of sexual abuse, a conclusion he reached after seeing not only the gravity of the cases but the truth in the accusations.

“Today, I can’t understand why it took me so long to [believe Karadima was guilty],” he said. “When someone asks me, I tell them the truth: I don’t understand myself.”

Karadima was an extremely powerful man. The parish he ran was always full of people, with nightly eight o’clock Masses that were standing-room only. There were dozens of priestly vocations coming from it, and the bishops of Santiago would often go to El Bosque to be seen with him.

“Everything indicated that what happened there was good,” a source told Crux on Monday. “You’d arrive at El Bosque, and a slow process of spiritual trickery would begin. He would eventually put you under his spell through spiritual direction, using [out of context] quotes from the Church’s magisterium and many saints on issues such as obedience, humility and the sin of pride.”

That description comes from a third priest who once belonged to Karadima’s priestly union.

“Some lived Karadima’s ‘path to sainthood’ with happiness, while others had a very strong interior rebellion, but we accepted what was happening thinking it was God’s will,” the priest said.

RELATED: Pope admits ‘serious errors’ on Chilean bishop accused of cover up

At this point, it is virtually impossible to know who told the pope what about Karadima and his bishop allies, unless Francis himself decides to speak.

A priest who received spiritual direction from Karadima for four years, and who was among the first to believe the allegations against him back in 2010, said that partially to blame for the pope’s misinformation is the fact that Karadima remains a “very divisive figure” in the Church in Santiago.

“Hard as it might be to believe, there are many who hate him more for ideological reasons than for the crimes he’s committed,” he said.

These ideological reasons are rooted in the fact that Karadima was a right-leaning priest, and the ministry he led from the affluent parish of El Bosque was perceived by many as a conservative response to changes set in motion by the 1960s Second Vatican Council.

Not to defend the pope, but in an attempt to explain where he was coming from, the source said that it’s plausible that “ideologically charged” information is what led Francis to say in 2015 that those in the Diocese of Osorno protesting against Barros were being “led by the nose by leftists.”

Today, there are several bishops in Chile’s church who were auxiliaries of Santiago during Karadima’s peak. There are also many priests who were shaped by Karadima, and even more who went to the seminary in Santiago when, for close to a decade, it was run by one of Karadima’s closest allies.

There’s also sworn testimony that in the 1980s, two rectors of the seminary went to the Archbishop of Santiago and spoke about Karadima’s abuse of power. One of them, according to testimony published in 2015 by the Chilean news outlet The Clinic, sent a written report detailing the allegations.

According to the third priest who spoke with Crux, who described himself as a victim of Karadima’s emotional and psychological manipulation, but not as a victim of sexual abuse, the impact the abuser had in those he mentored varied depending on their emotional situation and the support they had outside the parish, either from family, friends, other priests or even psychologists.

“The weaker they were, the more he damaged them, as obvious as that statement is,” the priest said.

Is Karadima just the tip of the iceberg?

Since it was Francis’s request for Scicluna to look deeper into the Barros case that led the pontiff to send a letter to the Chilean bishops, it is natural to focus almost exclusively on Karadima and the bishops he mentored.

Yet, observers say, it’s also misleading.

“If I can give you a piece of advice, the issue of El Bosque, is really important, and from a media point of view, iconic,” Fernandez said, in thoughts that were shared by all the sources consulted by Crux, one of whom repeatedly called Karadima “a monster.”

“Without taking an atom of importance away from it,” Fernández continued, “it’s not the only one, nor even the most serious one.”

“The complainants of the Karadima case have truly become the voices of many people,” Fernández said.

The scope and depth of the crisis, he argued, has to be taken into consideration, and on this matter, Barros’ resignation is almost an accessory.

The four bishops formed by Karadima could resign tomorrow, as could the five Chilean bishops who are over the age of 75. Yet seeing that Scicluna spoke with 64 people, presented a report that was 2,300 pages long and that Francis called the 32 bishops in active ministry to Rome and not just Barros and Ezzati, “the issue is evidently much deeper,” Fernandez ventured.

“For me, it would be the greatest news ever if everything was concentrated on one case, but unfortunately, it isn’t so,” he said, adding that clerical sexual abuse comes from both progressives and conservatives, so it’s not an “ideologically marked issue either.”

Another of the priests mentored by Karadima who spoke with Crux agrees: The scope of the crisis goes beyond El Bosque. Among the hierarchy, he said, there are some who want attention to continue being on Karadima so other cases continue unattended.

However, as of January 2018, there was a total of 80 priests who, having worked in Chile – some missionaries from abroad, many local – have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct in the past 15 years. According to La Tercera, one of Chile’s major news outlets, 45 were condemned either by civil or ecclesiastical courts, 34 for abusing minors.

Hence, Barros, Karadima et all are an “important” issue for the May meetings, Fernández argued, but for too long the local clergy throughout Latin America has been “used to not giving explanations to anyone, and here’s where accountability comes in.”

“There’s a sensation of impunity, and this is a very serious matter,” that relates to the way the Catholic Church is conceived, he said. “We need to recognize the mistakes we’ve made, and if sanctions are needed, they have to be imposed.”

Many in the laity agree.

A layman who works closely to the bishops who spoke with Crux on Thursday said that the crisis of clerical sexual abuse in the Chilean Church is comparable to that of the United States and Ireland.

“Not only because abusive priests were moved from one parish to the other, but because there was a machinery built to cover up for them,” the source said. “The steps are needed for the Church to acknowledge that this culture of protecting the institution is self-destructive.”

Precedents to what will happen in Rome

Even though Francis has met survivors of sexual abuse before, including in Chile, this week’s meeting is unique in the sense that this is the first time a pope will meet a group of victims he’s accused of “calumny.” He’s already acknowledged his mistake, and will presumably apologize again not only for the Church’s wrongdoing but his own.

On Wednesday morning, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke released a statement saying that the pope thanks the three victims for having accepted his invitation.

“During these days of personal and fraternal encounter, he wants to apologize, to share their pain and shame for what they’ve suffered and, above all, to listen to every suggestion they can make to avoid repetition of these reprehensible acts,” Burke said.

The American layman also said the pope asks for prayers for the Church in Chile, hoping that these encounters can take place in a “climate of serene trust,” and that they will become a “crucial step to remedy and avoid forever abuses of conscience, power and, particularly, those of sexual nature” in the Church.

When it comes to the bishops of an entire country being called to Rome apart from their normal five-year ad limina visit, it’s rare but not unprecedented.

Back in April 2002, twelve 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 policies on how to deal with child sexual abuse allegations against priests were drafted.

Pope John Paul II was present at that Rome meeting, but it was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who would help save the “zero tolerance” policy the bishops embraced in Dallas, and which had found resistance in three of the four Vatican dicasteries involved.

In 2010, Benedict would summon all the Irish bishops to Rome to discuss the Ryan and Murphy reports into widespread clerical child abuse.

The first report caused widespread controversy over its findings that sexual and psychological abuse was “endemic” in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages in Ireland for most of the 20th century.

The second was the result of an investigation set up in 2006 to see how Church and state authorities handled allegations of child abuse against 46 priests over a period from 1975 to 2004. Published in 2009, it found that the Church placed its own reputation above the protection of children in its care and that state authorities facilitated the cover-up by allowing the Church to operate outside the law.

After that gathering, the German pope issued a landmark pastoral letter in which he apologized to victims of clerical child sex abuse for the “grave errors” committed by Irish Church authorities. He also announced a formal Vatican investigation of Irish dioceses, seminaries and religious orders affected by the scandal.

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, who was the secretary of the Irish bishops’ conference at the time, offered a piece of advice for the upcoming meeting, not directed at the Chilean bishops but to the Vatican, and ultimately to the pope: “Listen.”

Acknowledging that he doesn’t “really know much of the details” of the Chilean case, he told Crux that the meeting with Benedict XVI was a “very important moment for the Holy See, to hear from people on the ground the reality of the struggles with this issue.”

At the time, he said, “it was sometimes presented in the media that Pope Benedict was calling the Irish bishops for a reprimand of sorts,” and according to Martin, giving the same interpretation to the meeting between Francis and the Chilean bishops “would be equally flawed.”

“It’s really important for the Church in Rome to listen, to hear the kinds of anxieties, the way that this issue traumatizes victims and survivors, it traumatizes their families, parishes,” he told Crux on April 17.

Martin said that sex abuse has a “horrendous impact,” destroying everything it touches for generations, hence he believes it’s very important for the pope and the Vatican’s congregations to hear what it’s like “for a Church in a place like Chile or Ireland,” to “struggle with this horrendous reality within its midst. Which has torn everything apart. Which has betrayed the trust on which the Church relies,” he said.

“Mistakes and awful things have happened at all levels in the Church, and it’s very important for that to be heard at the very center of the Church,” Martin said.

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to reflect the comments of Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.

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