ROME— According to Pope Francis, heads will roll in the Chilean Church after his summit with the country’s 34 bishops in Rome this week, but by itself that won’t fix what caused a massive crisis of sexual abuse and abuse of power in the country’s Church.
Though this was hinted at in a letter the Vatican made public on Thursday, a leaked document goes further, with the pontiff saying that removing people, though necessary, is not enough.
The problems facing the Chilean Church today are not solved by “addressing the concrete cases and reducing them to the removal of people; this – and I say this clearly – must be done, but it’s not enough, we must go further.”
According to Francis, it would be “a serious omission” not to look into the roots and structures that allowed for the abuse – not only sexual, but also of power and conscience – to happen and to continue over time.
“It is urgent to address and seek to repair in the short, medium, and long-term this scandal to restore justice and communion,” he writes.
In the footnotes of the 10-page document leaked to Chile’s T13 television, Francis also accuses Chile’s hierarchy of destroying evidence in cases of clerical sexual abuse, pressuring Church lawyers to minimize accusations, moving priests with credible accusations of abuse to other dioceses and of “grave negligence” in protecting children from pedophile priests.
Francis gave the document to the bishops on the first day of their May 15-17 summit, and it was presumably leaked by one of the 34 bishops, breaking Francis’s specific request for their meetings to be confidential.
Francis summoned the Chilean bishops’ conference to Rome after admitting that he had made “grave errors in judgment” in the case of Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest of covering up for his mentor.
In a letter dated April 8, he called for the meeting to discuss the conclusions of the report handed to him by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spaniard Jordi Bertomeu, who spoke with 64 people and produced a 2,300-page document.
That report continues to be confidential, but in the newly leaked letter, Francis calls this the “special mission,” that had as its scope to “help find the light to adequately treat an open wound, that hurts and is complex and that for a long time hasn’t stopped bleeding in the lives of so many people, and as such, in the life of the People of God.”
From the very beginning, the pope said he’s not pleased by what has been done so far: “A wound treated so far with a medicine that, far from curing, seems to have made it deeper and more painful.”
Francis listed several reasons as to why the actions taken to heal and repair the damage haven’t healed nor cured, including the will to “turn the page too quickly,” without taking into account the ramifications of this “Evil,” or because there was no courage to confront the responsibilities and omissions, particularly those that have allowed for the perpetuation of the wounds, or perhaps for not having the “mettle to assume as a body this reality in which we are all involved, first of all myself, and that no one can be exempted from by putting the problem on someone else’s shoulders.”
“We need a change, we know this, need this and wish for this,” the pope writes, not only because it’s owed to the many people who suffer “wounded in their flesh,” but also because “the spirit of conversion is part of the Church’s identity.”
The letter is a clear call for the conversion of the Chilean bishops, with a passage devoted to the need for Jesus’ presence to grow, because the Risen One “transforms the life and makes the faith joyfully contagious,” because only He saves.
Francis, who was once very familiar with the Chilean Church, having lived there during his Jesuit formation, wrote that history shows that during the “dark times in the history of its people, the Church in Chile had the prophetic courage not only to raise her voice, but of coming together to create spaces of defense of men and women” trusted to her protection by God.
The Chilean Church, he wrote, used to know that it couldn’t proclaim God’s love without promoting the true, authentic advancement of each person through justice and peace.
“It is painful to note that, in this last period of the history of the Chilean Church, this prophetic inspiration lost its strength, making way for what we could call a transformation at its center,” Francis said to the bishops, adding that it “became self-absorbed. Thus, the consequences of this whole process had a very high price: Its sin became the center of attention.”
“The painful and shameful sexual abuse of minors, abuses of power and conscience by ministers of the Church, as well as the way in which these situations have been dealt with, reveals this ‘change of ecclesial center’,” he wrote.
According to Francis, the fact that those who spoke with Scicluna and Bertomeu pointed out the insufficient pastoral care provided to those affected by grave crimes of sexual nature is “symptomatic.”
Even those who work in the National Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Accompaniment of Victims pointed out this insufficiency, the pope says.
Francis also says that the Chilean Church has become “elitist,” which he condemns by saying that no individual or “enlightened group” can pretend to “be the totality of the People of God.”
He adds, “that elite or elitist psychology ends up generating dynamics of division, separation, ‘closed circles’ that lead to narcissistic and authoritarian spiritualities in which, instead of evangelizing, the important thing is to feel special, different from others, thus leaving in evidence that neither Jesus Christ nor others truly matter. Messianism, elitism, clericalism, are all synonymous of perversion in the ecclesial being.”
The crimes, detailed in the footnotes
Francis is famous for making good use of the footnotes, and this letter is no exception: Amidst quotes from Pope St. John Paul II and Blessed Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council, the Gospel, and Chilean Saint Alberto Hurtado – more than half of the penultimate page is occupied by footnotes – he details some of the findings of the “special mission.”
On the ninth page, Francis insists that removing bishops from their posts is not enough, even if it would help and its needed. “I insist, it’s not enough.”
He also calls for the bishops to avoid the temptation to “save themselves” and their reputation, and calls on them to confess to their community their weakness so that they can find together “humble, concrete answers and in communion with the People of God.”
“The gravity of the events doesn’t allow us to become expert hunters of ‘scapegoats,’” Francis said.
The footnotes say that in the “special mission” his envoys were able to confirm that some religious who were expelled from their orders because of their immoral behavior were transferred to other dioceses, after the gravity of their actions was “minimized” and attributed to “simple weakness or lack of morality.”
The research, Francis says, also shows mishandling of the collection of the allegations, because “in not a few cases” grave indications of a crime were “were superficially qualified as improbable.”
Scicluna and Bertomeu also found that alleged crimes were investigated too late, if at all, and in other cases there was a “very grave negligence in the protection of children” by the bishops and religious superiors.
He also writes of being “perplexed and shamed” by witnesses who testified that those responsible for the criminal process were pressured from above and that compromising documents were destroyed, which shows a complete disregard of the canonical process.
Furthermore, he said, demonstrating that the problem is not only with one group of people, in the case of many abusers “grave problems” had already been found during their formation, and there are also “grave accusations against some bishops or superiors who [allegedly] entrusted to these education institutions priests suspected of active homosexuality.”
Francis closes the document by saying that the only way to avoid the perpetuation of these acts in the future is by assuming this is a “problem of all of us and not one lived by some.”
The bishops are due to hold a news conference in Rome later Friday.