Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with comments from Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez regarding a dispute over his claims of knowing abuse victims.
ROME – After the first meeting between Pope Francis and 34 Chilean bishops to talk about “extraordinary challenges [regarding] abuse of power, sexual [abuse] and [abuses] of conscience” facing the Chilean Church, on Tuesday the Vatican released a statement saying Francis had given the prelates a text on which to “pray and meditate.”
“This afternoon the pope gave each of the bishops a text with some themes on which to meditate; from now on until the next meeting, a moment opens dedicated exclusively to meditation and prayer,” the short statement says.
The statement was released after the first meeting between the pope and the prelates came to an end. Having started at 4:00 pm local, it lasted for about two hours and took place in the auletta of the Paul VI Synod Hall, a room located in the hall where popes hold their weekly audiences during bad-weather months.
There will be three more meetings: One on Wednesday afternoon and two on Thursday.
The bishops were summoned to Rome by Francis in a letter dated April 8. He penned it after receiving a report from Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish priest Jordi Bertomeu. The pontiff had tasked them with looking into Bishop Juan Barros, who’s been accused of covering up for a pedophile priest.
Scicluna and Bertomeu presented a 2,300-page long report that led to Francis acknowledging that he’d made “serious errors.” He also asked three victims of Father Fernando Karadima, who’s been found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors, to come to Rome. They did so in late April.
At a press conference in Rome, survivors told journalists that the pope had admitted to having been part of the problem.
One of the survivors said Francis had told him, “I was part of the problem, I caused this, and I apologize to you.”
“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.
The report Francis received from Scicluna and Bertomeu goes beyond Karadima, Barros and three other bishops who were part of the priest’s inner circle. A source within the Chilean Church told Crux in late April that even though Karadima was a “monster,” he’s not “the worst one.”
“Without taking an atom of importance away from it,” Father Samuel Fernández, a second source, told Crux at the time, “[Karadima’s case] is not the only one, nor even the most serious one.”
Fernández, a former member of the parish once led by the pedophile priest, says he was a victim of Karadima’s abuse of power.
Some Chilean media have reported that Scicluna and Bertomeu are participating in the meetings. However, a Vatican source with knowledge of the issue told Crux that’s not the case. A photograph released Tuesday does not show them. As was announced on Saturday, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America is taking part.
On Monday, two Chilean bishops participating in the meetings with Francis told reporters that they were going to “listen to the pope, to speak with him,” seeking the pontiff’s guidance.
Both avoided giving a direct response regarding possible resignations of Chilean bishops. Several of those on hand, including the former archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, who is a member of the pope’s C9, have been accused by survivors of having covered up abuse.
According to Bishop Fernando Ramos Pérez, 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 forward, that have to be made by the Holy Father.”
After Monday’s press conference, the bishops mostly have remained quiet, complying with a promise of “confidentiality.”
The one exception was Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez, one of the two bishops who addressed the media on Monday, who shared nothing regarding the encounter with the pope but who clarified comments he’d made at the press conference.
On that occasion, he said he’s a member of an abuse prevention panel within the Chilean bishops’ conference, and that he’s “met with many victims, I know the victims that the Holy Father has welcomed, I know all the victims of the Marist [Brothers].”
Soon after, Juan Carlos Cruz, Jose Andres Murillo and James Hamilton, the three Karadima victims welcomed by Pope Francis in late April, took to Twitter to say that they’ve never met Gonzalez.
“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.”
Hamilton said he’s “never met with nor spoken with this sinister character, [with an] impressive ability to lie.”
In response to a Crux request for comment, Gonzalez said he was referring to survivors of clerical sexual abuse who met with the pope when he was in Chile last January.
“In relation to affirming knowing victims of abuse and having been in touch with them, [as] signaled in the press conference, I was referring to some victims of the Marists who were heard by the National Council for the Prevention of Abuses of the bishops’ conference, and especially to the people who were welcomed by the Holy Father in the nunciature during his trip to Chile,” Gonzalez said.
During his Tuesday morning Mass, ahead of the first meeting, the pope gave what could be interpreted as a sign of things to come, saying that bishops are called to “keep watch over the flock: you are bishops for your flock, to take care of it and not in order to advance your ecclesiastical career.”
He also said all bishops, including himself, should seek the “grace to be able to take our leave and step down” if this is the will of the Holy Spirit.
In some way, Francis said in his homily, Paul knew that he was going “towards trials, towards the cross.”
Paul’s decision to take his leave from the Church Elders at Ephesus to go to Jerusalem, Francis said, “is a decisive move, a move that reaches the heart, it’s also a move that shows us the pathway for every bishop when it’s time to take his leave and step down.”