ROME – Starting Tuesday, 33 Chilean bishops will meet Pope Francis in Rome for three days to talk about the “extraordinary challenges” created by clerical sexual abuse and abuses of power in the country’s Church “in the last decade.”
The quotes come from a Vatican statement issued on Saturday, ahead of the meeting.
One bit of mini-drama heading in was whether Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, the retired archbishop of Santiago who’s been accused by survivors of covering up abuse cases, would attend. A member of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers, Errazuriz originally said he would skip the meeting but eventually boarded a plane for Rome on Saturday, saying simply, “I changed my mind.”
Saturday’s Vatican statement, presumably released with the pope’s green light, appeared to leave no room for doubt: At least some in the Chilean hierarchy have been found wanting, even if no actual canonical processes have taken place.
Yet, as the bishops get ready for three days of what the statement described as a “synodal process” … to discern together “the responsibility of all and each one in these devastating wounds, as well as to study adequate and lasting changes to prevent the repetition of these reprehensible acts,” it’s worth remembering that this meeting comes after Francis himself has undergone some major changes on the Chilean crisis.
The first red flag: Colazzi’s report was ignored
By the time Francis was elected in March 2013, the Vatican had already sentenced Chilean Father Fernando Karadima to a life of penitence and prayer for sexually abusing minors. Yet the scandals in Chile appear not to have been on the new pope’s radar screen.
In 2015, when Francis decided to appoint Bishop Juan Barros to the southern Chilean diocese of Osorno, the Vatican already had a report by Uruguayan Bishop Carlos Colazzi, who visited Chile twice at Rome’s request, in late 2011 and early 2012, to look into the situation.
Colazzi interviewed some 45 priests who were members of the “Priestly Union of the Sacred Heart,” founded in the 1920s and which eventually fell under Karadima’s control. Barros, together with three other active Chilean bishops, was a member of the union.
Though described as “superficial,” the report did claim that there was a lack of formation when it came to spiritual direction among the priests who belonged to the union, and they were sent to a mandatory course in Chile’s Catholic University.
The course, which lasted some 7 to 8 classes, was described to Crux as not necessarily useful, among other reasons because members of the priestly union had different backgrounds: some were diocesan priests, others religious, and several had received their formation not in Chile but in Rome’s pontifical universities.
If nothing else, the report served as a first official red flag regarding Barros’ connection to the Karadima scandals.
Survivors, public opinion and the media ignored
When the Vatican announced Francis’s decision to transfer Barros, the uproar was immediate, and it went beyond Chile. Three Karadima survivors, Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and José Andrés Murillo, who’ve accused Barros and the others of witnessing the abuses that took place in the 1980s and 1990s and covering them up, spoke out.
In addition to Barros, the victims have accused three other bishops – Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic, and Horacio Valenzuela. The four bishops defended their mentor and tried to discredit the victims, they said, even after the Vatican ruled against him.
Although there’s no record of any formal process against the bishops under Church law, the Chilean Bishops’ Conference nevertheless publicly apologized for supporting Karadima.
Barros has always denied the allegations.
In a 2015 statement they released to the media, Karadima’s victims said that “as survivors of the abuse by Karadima, and the complicity of Bishop Barros, we are accustomed to the blows we have received from the Chilean hierarchy, but never directly from the Holy Father.”
Another survivor to speak up at the time was Marie Collins, who was a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors until she resigned in early 2017. She too criticized the appointment.
In April 2015, along with three other members of the commission, the Irish woman met with Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the commission, in an effort to have the pope’s nomination of Barros reversed.
Many among the lay people of Osorno protested the appointment too. In early 2015, before the bishop took over the diocese in March, more than 1,000 signatures were sent to Rome asking for the move to be changed.
From the clergy in Osorno, one of the most outspoken was German Father Peter Kliegel. At the time, he sent a letter to the papal envoy in the country, Italian Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, questioning the appointment because of Barros’ closeness to Karadima.
In the letter, made public by the priest after Scapolo didn’t respond, Kliegel maintained that the community of Osorno is “confused and irritated” and said that he has no answers for the questions, doubts, and concerns of the laity.
Kliegel then led a group of 30 priests and deacons to sign a public declaration questioning the assignment. In it, they say that the mere fact of having been one of Karadima’s closest collaborators and having remained quiet while the abuses were taking place makes Barros a “non-credible person.”
“I personally spoke to the victim Carlos Cruz,” Kliegel told Crux at the time, “[and] he confirmed the reports that claim that Barros was present during these dishonest acts.”
Since Barros claims to be innocent of any wrongdoing, Kliegel said it’s “one testimony against the other” and that “one doesn’t know whom to believe.”
Yet the clerics who signed the letter were convinced that for ethical reasons and for the public good, Barros shouldn’t take leadership of the diocese.
“A bishop has to unify the flock, but his appointment causes disunity, despondency, disorientation, and huge rejection from the faithful and citizenship,” Kliegel said. “It hurts, because we see the scandal coming, and the Church in Chile doesn’t need another one. The Karadima case has already cost us a lot of credibility.”
Yet despite the widespread criticism of the appointment, the Vatican, and the pope, stood by Barros.
The Vatican’s press office issued a terse statement in March 2015 insisting the move was “carefully examined” and there were no “objective reasons” to stop it.
“Prior to the recent appointment of His Excellency Msgr. Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as bishop of Osorno, Chile, the Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment,” it said.
The Congregation for Bishops is led by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, and it’s the Vatican department that recommends bishops’ appointments to the pope. According to a statement from last week, Ouellet will be the only Vatican official other than the pope to be present at the May 15-17 meetings between Francis and the Chilean prelates.
Later that year, the Argentine pontiff was filmed in St. Peter’s Square by a former spokesman of the Chilean bishops’ conference going after those voicing objections. Francis is heard telling the man, Jaime Coiro, that the local Church had “lost its head” by allowing a group of politicians to judge a bishop “with no proof whatsoever.”
Francis also said that they were being “led around by the nose.”
When Barros was installed as the new bishop of Osorno on March 21 of 2015, his Mass had to be cut short due to protests. The crowd threw objects at the prelate, pushed him, and tried to stop him from entering St. Mathew’s church.
While the bishop was celebrating the Mass, many in attendance screamed “pedophile” and “get out!” at Barros.
Soon after, Scapolo said he was “calm,” and that “no information has been hidden” from the pope and the Holy See regarding the charges against Barros. “We have to accept the decision,” the papal nuncio said at the time, in the days following the installation Mass.
A controversial papal visit to Chile
Ahead of Francis’s Jan. 16-18 visit to Chile, the Associated Press broke a story on a previously unknown 2015 letter written by Francis to the Chilean bishops’ conference, which came after the pontiff had transferred Barros.
“I’m aware that the situation of the Church in Chile is difficult due to the trials you’ve had to undergo,” the letter says.
He acknowledged the challenges during the first speech of his visit when he said “I feel bound to express my pain and shame, shame I feel for the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church.”
“I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask for forgiveness and to make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again,” he said.
Survivors blasted the apology as a “cheap headline.”
A day later, Barros would be seen at the altar with Francis as he said Mass, and during a private meeting with the Chilean bishops, the pope reportedly personally expressed his support.
During his last day in Chile, as he was headed to celebrate Mass, a journalist asked the pope about Barros, and he once again was caught on video publicly defending the bishop: “There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny,” the pope said.
Fallout from those remarks led O’Malley to release a statement a day later, in which he said it’s understandable that the pontiff’s words were a “source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator.”
“Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims, then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile,” O’Malley said.
On the plane back from that trip, which included a three-day visit to Peru, Francis toned down his remarks but essentially stood by them, saying that he was convinced of Barros’ innocence and that the bishop was going to stay in his post because he couldn’t “condemn him without evidence.”
“I personally am convinced that he’s innocent,” Francis said.
Something snapped, and a sea change followed
Despite the certainty he showed to journalists, before January was over the Vatican had announced the pope had decided to send Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Father Jordi Bertomeu – former and current officials at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – to Chile, to look into the Barros case.
In April, after receiving a 2,300-page report reflecting interviews with 64 people, Francis sent another letter to the Chilean bishops acknowledging he’d been wrong, and summoning all of them to Rome. The missive was read by the bishops during a live-streamed press conference on April 11.
Over the weekend of April 28, the pope welcomed the three survivors to the Vatican, meeting each of them individually and then all together. During his conversations with Cruz, one of the survivors, the pope admitted he’d been part of the problem.
To this day, the content of the Scicluna report remains confidential, as will the pope’s meeting with the Chilean bishops. Some have called for heads to roll. Others, without denying the need for renewal in the Chilean hierarchy, insist that the problem goes deeper than Barros and Karadima, and that to reduce it to that would be “face-washing” and a disservice to the Church.
Only time will tell what comes next. Until then, it’s safe to say that by now, Chile’s abuse crisis is firmly on Francis’s radar screen.