ROME – After facing heated criticism over his actions and words regarding clerical sexual abuse in Chile, this weekend Pope Francis tried to address the scandal head-on, meeting three abuse survivors from the Latin American nation ahead of a summit later this month with Chile’s bishops.

“Pope Francis formally asked us for forgiveness, in his own name and on behalf of the universal Church,” the three said in a statement released on Wednesday in Rome after their meetings with the pope.

This weekend, abuse survivors Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Andres Murillo were hosted by Francis at the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence, the hotel built under St. Pope John Paul II where he’s lived since the beginning of his pontificate.

Overall, the survivors described their meetings positively, with Francis being “attentive, receptive and very empathetic during the intense and long hours of conversations.”

One of the survivors went so far as to say that he believed the pope hadn’t lied, but had been badly informed when it came to the situation in Chile. The survivor said Francis had told him, “I was part of the problem, I caused this, and I apologize to you.”

Yet they also said that despite the pope’s request to continue to send him suggestions on how to fight clerical sexual abuse, “it’s not up to us to carry out the necessary transformations in the Church to stop the epidemic of sexual abuse and cover-up.”

Speaking with journalists in Rome for over 90 minutes, the three survivors spoke frankly about their meetings with the pope and about what they hope will happen now, including accusations against several members of the Chilean hierarchy of being “criminals” for having covered up abuse accusations.

“We would love to see [Cardinals Francisco Javier Errázuriz and Ricardo Ezzati] stand trial,” Murillo said. “We consider them guilty of covering up.” But in Chile, they said, from a judicial point of view, such charges are ruled out by the statute of limitations after 5 or 10 years.

Hamilton said that by 2005, Errázuriz “knew everything,” because they’d given witness to the promoter of justice in Chile, who informed the cardinal that the allegations against a well-known and charismatic priest named Father Fernando Karadima were believable.

In 2009, when Hamilton was trying to get his Church marriage annulled, the three victims gave a second statement which was sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In early 2011, Karadima was found guilty by the Vatican and sentenced to a life of penitence and prayer.

Due to Chile’s criminal statute of limitations, Karadima was tried and found guilty but the sentence was never applied.

“Cardinal Errázuriz covered up for more than five years the crimes of Karadima,” Hamilton insisted, to the nods of the other two survivors. “According to canon law and for the victims, he’s a criminal who covered up for Karadima and his circle.”

Though Errázuriz is today the archbishop emeritus of Santiago, Chile’s capital, he still sits on the council of nine cardinals who advise the pope on the reform of the Roman curia.

May 14-17, Chile’s bishops will come to Rome to hold their own meetings with the pope, marking the second time in recent history that an entire bishops’ conference is summoned to Rome due to the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

The previous case was Ireland, with the prelates coming to the Vatican in 2009, summoned by Benedict XVI. Seven years prior, in 2002, John Paul II had similar sessions with the then 12 cardinals of the United States and the heads of the bishops’ conference.

Francis summoned the prelates to Rome in a letter he sent to them after reviewing a 2,300 page report by Archbishop Charles Scicluna. The Vatican had announced Francis’s decision to send the Maltese archbishop, the Church’s top prosecutor under Pope Benedict XVI, to Latin America some 10 days after the pope returned from his visit to Chile and Peru in mid-January.

During the flight back from that tour, speaking with journalists, Francis once again defended the bishop who’s in the eye of the storm, Juan Barros, who was transferred by the pontiff to the southern diocese of Osorno in 2015.

Barros is one of four bishops who belonged to Karadima’s inner circle, and the priest’s victims have said time and time again that the bishop knew, but had chosen to cover up for his mentor. To this day, Barros maintains that he’s innocent.

“We were able to speak frankly and respectfully with the pope,” the survivors said in their statement. “We talked about difficult issues, such as sexual abuse, abuse of power and especially the cover-up of the Chilean bishops.”

Sexual abuse, they said, is not only a sin but also crimes, and as such, they “do not end in Chile, but are an epidemic.”

During the Q&A section Hamilton said that the Chilean Catholic Church doesn’t have a “monopoly” on abuse and cover-up. “This fight does not end in Chile,” nor in the Church, he said.

Yet “we hope the Church becomes an ally in the fight against abuse, and not a refuge of abusers,” he said at a different moment. “But I also acknowledge that there are a lot of people within the Church, the indispensables, who do a lot of work in favor of the victims too.”

On their personal encounters with the pope

Hamilton, Cruz and Murillo each met with Francis individually, and then on Monday, as a group. Throughout the press conference, each spoke about their individual experiences.

Murillo, who works with survivors on a daily basis, said that even though he was thankful for the hospitality, for him the trip to Rome wasn’t “a victory” nor a “recognition.”

“I’m tired. This has been exhausting,” he said. “I don’t see this as a victory. This wasn’t a moment of triumph, joy or reparation. I’m tired. I constantly work with victims of pedophilia, and it’s in their names that I’ve come. This does not end with me, but with the thousands of victims who’ve been abused, not only by priests but by their parents, professors, trainers.”

“As a Catholic, my personal encounter was a tremendously important experience for me, and I’m still processing it,” Cruz said. “And I said this to the pope, our experience cannot be an isolated case. [Sexual abuse of minors] is a plague, an epidemic. Victims must be treated respectfully, not only by the pope, but the bishops, and the Church as a whole … [that] must be the norm.”

Cruz said that he’d confided in the pope that Barros and the other three bishops from Karadima’s inner circle, Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic Maroevic and Horacio Valenzuela, “saw how Karadima touched and abused young people, and they were there. [The pope] received that information.”

Asked about the letter he had sent to Francis in 2015 detailing his experience, and which was hand-delivered to the pontiff by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the survivor said that he hadn’t brought the letter up.

“My conclusion is that the pope was misinformed,” he said, adding that when Francis in Chile had said he wanted evidence of Barros’ wrongdoing, “he didn’t lie. He was truly misinformed.”

“I have never seen someone be so contrite about what he was telling me,” Cruz said. “I felt also that he was hurting, which for me, was very solemn. It’s not often that the pope really says sorry to you and apologizes.”

Cruz then said that Francis had told him: “I was part of the problem, I caused this, and I apologize to you.”

Moving forward, the survivor said, the pope would have no excuses: “Now he knows everything.”

The question of “who misinformed him,” Cruz said, still remains.

The Chilean also said that he’d told the pope he’d been “tremendously” hurt by the pope’s words in Chile, when he defended Barros and called the allegations made against the bishops “calumnies.”

Hamilton defined the meeting as very “honest,” with a man who’s not “prideful.”

“I told him that he’s facing the biggest crisis the Church has ever faced. This is not a case of priests being killed, but the faith is being killed from the inside, from its credibility.”

Hamilton also said that the pope today is “really well informed,” and that this is the case because Francis himself wanted to get to the bottom of things. “Everybody deserves, especially in this case, a second chance. We have hope, but we want to have a hope that is connected with reality.”

“If we don’t see any changes, we will continue our fight for all the abused in the world, not only the abused by priests,” he continued. “If we see changes, we will be the first ones to be here again, to help, as we told the pope.”

On how Francis should address the crisis now

Speaking on a “personal note,” Hamilton said that moving forward, he’d want the Church to identify the root of the problem behind sexual abuse of minors. Secondly, the Church should recognize that in front of the law, “everyone is equal.”

“Jesus was born in a barn, obeying civil law,” he said. “And Jesus died in the hands of the Romans, also obeying civil law.”

The pope, Hamilton said, found this to be “reasonable,” and even gave the example of a bishop reporting a priest to the authorities.

Francis asked the three to continue in conversation with the Vatican, and requested that they send him suggestions as to how the Church should move forth. On this, the survivors said that they will focus on prevention, investigation, justice and reparation for abuse, so that the Church can be “a home for those who need defense, welcoming, justice.”

“We believe that the Church shouldn’t go on putting down fires as a fireman, but be the one preventing them all,” Hamilton said.

Cruz said that the three of them have spoken about what they think should happen with the Chilean bishops – at the very least, several, including the four close to Karadima, should leave their posts. They said so again during the press conference, when they called for Errázuriz to leave his position on the pope’s C9.

“Concretely, we spoke about many issues with the pope, made several suggestions,” he said. “The pope told us he was going to pray on them, think, and then make decisions in the short, mid and long term, as he said in his letter. We await confidently.”