ROME – Some might say that the 34 Chilean bishops who are now in Rome to meet with Pope Francis to address the way they’ve handled clerical sexual abuse scandals are like lambs to the slaughter. Two of them projected just that image when talking to journalists on Monday, saying that they’ve come to Rome with “pain,” “shame,” and “humility,” to “listen” and “discern.”
Bishop Fernando Ramos Pérez, secretary general of the Chilean bishops’ conference, said that the bishops who have arrived in Rome have done so with “pain, because there are people who’ve been victims of abuse,” but also with shame, “because the abuses have occurred in ecclesial environments where this type of abuse should never happen.”
“We have made mistakes, many mistakes,” said Bishop Ignacio González, who acknowledged that the Catholic Church in Chile had failed when it comes to protecting children.
The bishop, a member of the Chilean council for the prevention of abuse and accompaniment of victims said he “understood the rage, the anger,” of Chilean survivors of abuse who’ve asked for Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, the former Archbishop of Santiago, to face trial for covering up abuse.
González said that in his experience, “most of the time the victims are right.”
However, González also said that at least some of the bishops too have suffered with what’s going on in the Church in Chile, and want to “put an end to this, we’re taking measures to put an end [to the crisis] but we still haven’t managed to do so.”
González’s words came ahead of a May 15-17 meeting between 34 Chilean bishops and Pope Francis. Among the prelates, three are no longer active, including Errazuriz, who’s nonetheless still a member of the pope’s “C9” council of nine cardinal advisers.
The encounters will start on Tuesday afternoon in the auletta, a backstage anteroom of sorts of the Paul VI Hall, where popes hold their weekly audiences during bad-weather months.
Some observers believe it’s telling that the pontiff chose this rather impersonal room and not one in the Apostolic Palace, or even in the Santa Marta residence where he lives and where some of the Chilean bishops will be staying this week. It’s located a short walk away from the pope’s home.
Speaking at a Rome press conference on Monday in the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications (formerly known as Vatican Radio) were Ramos, auxiliary bishop of Santiago, and González of the diocese of San Bernardo.
Both avoided giving a direct response regarding possible resignations of Chilean bishops, several of whom have been accused by survivors of having covered up abuse. Instead, González said that they’re in Rome with “the disposition to listen to the pope, to speak with him.”
Pressed again, González said “it’s possible” that some Chilean bishops will resign, but that it was up to the pope. “If [Francis] asks, we’ll do it,” he said.
Speaking about the causes behind the clerical sexual abuse crisis in Chile, he said that there are many, including the “abandonment of spiritual life, of basic measures of prudence that any person has.” To solve it in the long run, he said, reform has to begin in the seminary.
According to Ramos, the pope is “inviting us to live a moment of discernment with him. These meetings will be to evaluate, see the conclusions he’s reached, and see the best measures to move forth, that have to be made by the Holy Father.”
It’s possible, González said, that the pope has more information than the Chilean bishops do at this point.
The meeting was called after Francis received a 2,300-page report by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Father Jordi Bertomeu, an official of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Both were tasked by Francis with carrying out an investigation after his January trip to Chile.
The document was supposed to focus on Bishop Juan Barros, who’s been accused by the victims of pedophile priest Fernando Karadima of covering up for his mentor. However, once in Chile Scicluna and Bertomeu opened the scope of their investigation, collecting the testimony of 64 people.
Among the cases outside of Karadima that the two collected information on are those of the Marist Brothers. Sources have told Crux that the damage done by some 20 brothers for the past several decades is much more widespread than that of Karadima, found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 and sentenced to a life of “penitence and prayer.”
Days before the pope’s trip to Chile, the religious order had to acknowledge it had covered up cases of abuse.
Even before the Rome meetings began, some have already expressed skepticism. For instance, abuse survivor Marie Collins, a member of the pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors until she resigned in early 2017, said that anyone who expects the pope to “name and openly dismiss the guilty men in the Chilean hierarchy from office will be disappointed.”
“Instead, nuncio and bishops’ ‘resignations’ will be accepted and a cardinal will step down from the C9 on age grounds. Faces saved all round – not justice,” she said on Twitter on Monday. (The nuncio is the papal representative in any given country. In the case of Chile, that role falls to Italian Archbishop Ivo Scalpolo, who will not be taking part in the meetings this week).
Ramos said that focusing on the pain of the victims is a “very big moral imperative for us,” and that just as Jesus calls to “forgive not seven times but seventy times seven, we might have to ask for forgiveness not seven times but seventy times seven.”
He also said that seeing the fact that there are survivors who are still “hurting and angry,” the bishops “evidently have not done our work right and we have to improve,” adding that their meeting with the pope offers them an “important moment of renewal.”
The crisis in Chile comes years after the scandals of clerical sexual abuse broke in the United States in 2002 (with cardinals summoned to Rome by Pope John Paul II that year), then in Ireland (with the bishops called in by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009).
Ramos said that Chile’s mistakes respond to the fact that “we weren’t prepared to deal with things that were ‘outside’ of our normal area of life. Receiving information that sexual abuse occurred within our community is something that left many in shock. It’s unacceptable, intolerable, unjustifiable, from every point of view.”
“We didn’t have the preparation or the ability to understand what happened to a victim or why it takes so long for a person to come forward with the atrocities they’ve suffered,” he said.
The meeting between Francis and the Chilean bishops comes two weeks after his April 27-29 encounter with three of Karadima’s victims: Juan Carlos Cruz, Jose Andres Murillo and James Hamilton. They met with the pope individually and as a group.
During a press conference on May 2, Cruz was asked about receiving an apology from the Chilean bishops, to which he said: “Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for himself and on behalf of the universal Church. The bishops of Chile don’t know how to ask for forgiveness.”
González said on Monday that he knows the victims who’ve met with Francis and those of the Marist brothers, something two of the survivors who met with the pope quickly denied on Twitter.
“I’ve never seen him before in my life,” Cruz tweeted. “The truth according to the bishops of Chile is very different from what we all have lived.”
“My conclusion regarding the press conference of the Chilean bishops, Ramos and Gonzalez, is that they are great actors, who see a reality and a truth totally different from what common people see, and they should return to the planet from where they came,” he added in a second tweet.
Hamilton, sharing the first of Cruz’s messages, said that he’s “never met with nor spoken with this sinister character, [with an] impressive ability to lie.”
The press conference and the meeting between the pope and the bishops come as “60 Minutes” in the U.S. previewed footage of Pope Francis — A Man of His Word, by German experimental filmmaker Wim Wenders. One of the sections is on clerical abuse.
“Towards pedophilia, zero tolerance!” Francis says in the film. “And the Church must punish such priests who have that problem, and bishops must remove from their priestly functions anyone with that disease, that tendency to pedophilia, and that includes to support the legal action by the parents before the civil courts. There is no other way out of this! Zero tolerance, because it’s a crime, no, worse! It’s leaving them alive, but destroyed.”