ROME – Days before Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with over 30 Chilean bishops to discuss the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the country, victims are speaking out, and the laity of the diocese at the center of the story are demanding to have a voice in the naming of their bishop.
The laity, more than “mere observers”
A group of laity in the Diocese of Osorno released a statement on Thursday saying that they are “expectantly” awaiting the outcome of the May 14-17 meeting between Francis and the Chilean bishops. They also request that Spanish Father Jordi Bertomeu, a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, be appointed as the “interlocutor” to choose their new bishop.
The statement also demands that the laity be consulted in the decisions that need to be made to resolve the crisis, instead of being “mere observers and receptors of important decisions already taken — either in Rome, the bishops’ conference, or the Apostolic nunciature.”
The statement called for an end to “unilateral decision-making,” adding that the Church is living through a moment which is calling it to a “profound and genuine conversion.”
Quoting an article by a “renown Jesuit theologian in Santiago,” they also say that the laity, “including women,” should be involved in every stage of the process of choosing a bishop.
According to the lay group, if the hierarchy decided to involve them in the process of choosing their bishops, it would signal an “authentic ecclesial participation” and be in harmony with changing what Francis calls the “ravages caused by extreme and damaging clericalism.”
Osorno is at the center of the upcoming Rome summit because it was Francis’s 2015 decision to appoint Bishop Juan Barros to this small southern diocese that caused the uproar from many among the laity, including three of the victims of pedophile priest Fernando Karadima.
Karadima was found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexually abusing minors and has been sentenced to a life of penitence and prayer.
Barros, one of four bishops who came from Karadima’s inner circle, is accused of covering up for his mentor.
In their statement, the Osorno laity praise not only Bertomeu, but also Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who was dispatched by Francis to Chile – and New York – to investigate the accusations against Barros. Afterwards, he presented the pontiff with a 2,300 page report including the testimony of 64 people covering not only the Barros case, but also other allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Church in Chile.
The pontiff was so affected by the content of the report that he penned a letter to the Chilean bishops in which he acknowledged that he had made “serious errors of assessment and perception” in handling the sexual abuse crisis in Chile.
The Osorno lay group also claimed that a message sent by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the head of the pope’s commission for the protection of minors, was the “trigger” that led to the investigation.
The lay group’s statement said Osorno wants a bishop that “has the smell of the sheep,” one of Francis’s favorite phrases to describe a good shepherd.
They then quote the pontiff, who during his trip to Chile last January said to the bishops gathered in the sacristy of Santiago’s cathedral: “Let’s say this clearly, the laity are not our pawns, nor our employees, they don’t have to repeat as ‘parrots’ what we tell them.”
In very broad strokes, the process to select a bishop is not democratic. Prelates submit a list of names to the archbishop of their ecclesiastical province.
The archbishop submits the list to the papal representative in the country, known as the apostolic nuncio, who then forwards the list to Rome, where the pope has the last word.
However, sources in Chile have told Crux that many among the faithful, particularly in Osorno, don’t trust the current apostolic nuncio, Italian Archbishop Ivo Scalpolo, since he either suggested Barros become bishop of Osorno, or wasn’t able to dissuade the pontiff against the appointment.
Who suggested Francis transfer Barros from the military diocese to Osorno remains, to this day, one of the most pressing unanswered questions about the case.
What the bishops are saying ahead of the meeting
In a statement released May 10, the standing committee of the Chilean bishops’ conference confirmed the prelates will be meeting with Francis next week.
The statement “reiterates our union with Pope Francis in the pain and shame expressed regarding the crimes committed against minors and adults in church settings.”
“We recognize that, despite the actions taken in these years by the Church, it has not always been possible to heal the wounds of the abuses, that continue to be an open wound in the hearts of the victims and for the People of God,” the bishops wrote.
Speaking about Francis’s recent meeting with three of the victims of Karadima, the bishops say that the pontiff’s attitude to “welcome them sets an example and shows us the path the Chilean Church is called to follow in the face of allegations of abuses of conscience, sexual abuse and ultimately, against any abuse of power that may occur within our communities.”
Juan Ignacio González, Bishop of San Bernardo, said that he expects Francis will present them with a plan for the future, “about what he sees for the Church to Chile in the years to come.”
Speaking with Chilean news outlet Expreso Bío Bío, the bishop also referred to the decision by Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz to skip the meeting, even though as the former Archbishop of Santiago he’s at the center of the allegations of a cover-up.
“He must have his reasons that I don’t know about, some were explained by the media, but I am not surprised,” González said.
“I do not know the reasons [Errázuriz] gave for not going,” the bishop said, adding that “it seems right that everyone should decide in conscience what he has to do.”
The survivors too continue to speak up
The three survivors of Karadima who met with Francis in April have also commented on Errázuriz’s decision not to attend the meeting, each telling local media their own version of “I’m not surprised.”
One of them, José Andrés Murillo, said that the actions taken by the cardinal to avoid his responsibility are “consistent over time and this [his absence] doesn’t surprise me in the least.”
He also said that if the Catholic Church has failed protecting children throughout the world it’s because there’s a structural flaw, hence the solution also has to be structural and cannot be reduced to removing two or three bishops.
James Hamilton, another of the survivors, referred to the 14-page report Errázuriz allegedly gave to the pope while he was in Rome in late April, participating in the meetings of the “C9,” the council of cardinals who advise the pope on matters of Church reform.
Speaking to the press after a talk he gave in Chile’s Catholic University, Hamilton said that Francis is showing the path the Church has to follow, by publicly acknowledging his mistake, apologizing, and by treating the survivors in a very affectionate way.
He said that Errázuriz’s report must be “disinformation,” accusing the cardinal of “constantly sending” false information to the pontiff, citing as proof what happened to the pope in Chile: “Clearly it’s disinformation and malicious.”
During a press conference held in Rome after their encounter with the pope, the survivors accused Errázuriz of criminal behavior.
“These I think are the stages of the reparation of a person,” he said. “But we still need to see justice being done and the truth to come out.”