Chilean bishops set to meet with Pope Francis in response to the sexual abuse crisis

Chilean clerical sex abuse survivors Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo attend a news conference at the Foreign Press Association building in Rome May 2. The three survivors met Pope Francis individually at the Vatican April 27-29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

In an extraordinary response to a widening sexual abuse crisis, Chilean bishops will arrive in Rome this weekend to participate in a summit called by Pope Francis, May 15 through 17.

The bishops, 31 active together with two of Chile’s 19 emeritus bishops, will assist Pope Francis, per a letter released in April, “in discerning the...measures that must be adopted to re-establish ecclesial communion in Chile, with the goal of repairing as much as possible the scandal and re-establishing justice.”

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In a May 12 statement, the Vatican refers to “the abuses,” that is to the triple abuse “of power, of sex and of conscience” that has been perpetrated in the Chilean church in these past decades, in different ways, by both priest abusers and bishops. The upcoming summit, which it described as an  “encounter,” is a follow-up to the convocation issued by the pope to the Chilean episcopate in his letter of April 8.

Providing background to this, it explained that “his attention was drawn to the circumstances and extraordinary challenges raised by the abuses of power, sex and conscience that have happened in Chile in these last decades.” As a result of this, the pope “deemed it necessary to examine in depth the causes, consequences, as well as the mechanisms that have led in some cases to the cover-up and to grave omissions in regard to the victims,” according to the Vatican statement.

It said the summit will be a “long synodal process” through which the pope and the bishops “discern together, in the presence of God, the responsibility of all, and of each one, for these devastating wounds.” They will study changes that can “prevent the repetition of these always reprehensible acts.”

Looking to the future, the Vatican statement underlined that “it is fundamental to re-establish trust in the Church through good pastors that witness with their life to have known the voice of the Good Shepherd and that know how to accompany the sufferings of the victims and to work in a determined and tireless way for the prevention of the abuses.”  

Francis convoked the summit after receiving the 2,300-page report from Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Father Jordi Bertomeu, whom he sent to Chile to interview the survivors of sexual abuse by Father Fernando Karadima. Survivors had accused Bishop Juan Barros of the Diocese of Osorno of being present during Father Karadima’s crimes and later covering them up. Bishop Barros denies these accusations. The papal envoys listened to 64 testimonies, including those of Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Andrés Murillo. They also met with bishops (including Bishop Barros), priests and laity from Osorno and abuse victims of the Marist brothers in Chile.

The pope said his envoys gave him their report and their “juridical and pastoral assessment of the gathered information” and told him they had been “overwhelmed with the pain of so many victims of grave abuses of conscience and power and, in particular, of the acts of sexual abuse committed by various consecrated men of your country against minors, those who were not taken seriously then and were even robbed of their innocence.”

The church in Chile has been shaken to its foundations by the sex-abuse crisis and the way the bishops handled it; but the scandal is wider than the case of Father Karadima and said to involve an additional 80 priests.

In his letter, the pope acknowledged his own “responsibility” for handling the appointment of Bishop Barros to Osorno and the reaction to it and “serious errors” he had made “in the assessment and perception of the situation, especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information.” After asking forgiveness from all those he had offended, he urged the Chilean bishops to prepare for the summit with prayer, reflection and a spirit of “magnanimity” so that “it would be the Spirit who would guide us with his gift, and not our interests or, even worse, our wounded pride.”

The pope’s letter hit the leadership of the Chilean church like an earthquake, as did his meeting with the victims. While most Chilean bishops welcomed Francis’ letter, some sought to place the blame for the crisis elsewhere.

It had been expected that the two cardinals in the eye of the cyclone, Francisco Javier Errazuriz, 84, and Ricardo Ezzati,76, the emeritus and current archbishops of Santiago, would attend the summit, and perhaps also the third Chilean cardinal, Jorge Medina Estevez, 92, who was once influential in Rome. But in a decision criticized in the Chilean press, Cardinal Errazuriz said on May 9 that he would not attend “for personal reasons.” He told La Tercera, a Chilean newspaper, that before leaving Rome nine days earlier, where he had attended a meeting of Francis’ nine cardinal advisors, he had given his input “in response to the pope’s request” and had put “into his hands” a 14-page report on Father Karadima “and the ramifications of the case.”

However, Cardinal Errazuriz changed his mind about attending the summit and was seen boarding a plane for Rome with two other bishops on May 12. He would not give any comment to the press.

Since the publication of the pope’s letter, Cardinal Errazuriz sought on various occasions to disclaim responsibility for what has happened in the Chilean church, but the three main victims of Father Karadima told a press conference in Rome after their meetings with the pope that they consider Cardinal Errazuriz a criminal for having covered up the abuse.

Francis convoked the summit after receiving the 2,300-page report from Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Father Jordi Bertomeu, whom he sent to Chile to interview the survivors of sexual abuse by Father Fernando Karadima.

While the Vatican has not yet published the program for the four-day summit, it is expected that the bishops will meet senior officials of the Roman Curia and with the pope. Chilean church sources say the bishops will not meet the press before the summit, and it is not clear if they will do so afterwards.

The church in Chile has been shaken to its foundations by the sex-abuse crisis and the way the bishops handled it; but the scandal is wider than the case of Father Karadima and said to involve an additional 80 priests.

At the end of the military dictatorship (1973-1990), the church was the most trusted institution in Chile. By the end of 2017, however, on the eve of the pope’s visit, the level of confidence in the Chilean church had plummeted to 36 percent. In that same period (1995-2017) the percentage of those who declared themselves Catholic fell from 74 to 45 percent, while those who professed no religion escalated from 7 to 35 percent. There has been a significant drop in vocations to the priesthood too, according to the Vatican yearbook. In 2001, there were 847 seminarians but only 607 in 2015.

The summit represents the fourth meeting between the pope and the Chilean hierarchy in the space of 15 months: he met with them twice in February 2014 during their “ad limina” visit and a third time in the sacristy of the cathedral of Santiago on Jan. 16, when he insisted on the need to overcome clericalism.

While the Karadima scandal has had a big impact on the loss of trust in the church, it has not been the only factor. Another was the change of direction in the Chilean church willed by John Paul II through his appointment of bishops more focused on sexual morality than on social justice. The bishops became distant from the people in these years and the people from them. A third significant factor was the increasing secularization in the country.

The rector of the Jesuit-run University Alberto Hurtado, in Santiago, Eduardo Silva, S.J., summed up the situation this way: “We have a wounded church, an ecclesial crisis, and a discredited hierarchy.” But he believes the summit can lead to “a new beginning” for the church in Chile.

The pope acknowledged his own “responsibility” for handling the appointment of Bishop Barros to Osorno.

Pope Francis in his letter spoke about the need for short, medium and long term measures to address the crisis. Sources in Chile and Rome expect “the short-term measures” to include identifying ways to prevent the abuse of sex and power by Chilean clergy, “to re-establish justice” for Father Karadima’s victims and to address the plight of the victims of the Marist brothers. Other measures are likely to include a demand for the resignations of Cardinal Ezzati and Bishop Barros, and possibly other bishops, the appointment of a new nuncio and, before the end of the year, the removal of Cardinal Errazuriz from the pope’s council of cardinal advisors.

At the summit Pope Francis will want to look to the future through measures “to re-establish trust in the church, a trust broken by our errors and sins” and “to heal the wounds that do not cease to bleed in the whole of Chilean society.”

Among possible measures for the medium and long terms, sources in Chile and Rome say there is a need for “conversion,” or as the bishop of Aysén, Luis Infanti, told Chilean TV, a need for “a change of attitudes” among the bishops. It will be necessary to more carefully select bishop candidates and to improve the selection and training of priests, so as to build “a missionary and prophetic church,” devoid of clericalism, in which the mission “is carried out in fraternal unity with the whole People of God,” as Francis told the bishops in Santiago cathedral in January.

This summit could mark a turning point not only in the church’s approach to the abuse of minors by clergy but also in how to evangelize anew in a country where so many faithful have left the church.

This story has been updated with details from a May 12 statement from the Vatican.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert robtlongo
5 months ago

While another abuse tragedy is incredibly disturbing, by now it shouldn't be a surprise to American Catholics that the waves of this ongoing Catholic Church scandal, have turned into a tsunami going from city to city, and now country to country. The pain and collective sin is due to not only the depraved, sick individuals, who diguised themselves as trusted, men of God, but arguably to the more deliberate sinners, their superiors, peers and others who conspired to a covered-up, or looked away, or simply denied reality, resulting in more assaults upon more innocents, and more ruined lives. No wonder, so many people have lost faith in a Church that would protect such demonic, criminals. No wonder, even those who don't doubt their faith in a Church founded by Jesus, may now designate their status as "Spiritual" and not "Religious". No wonder, so many Catholics have resorted to their God-given "free-will" to clarify what is aligned with the teachings of Jesus versus what is questionable teaching from questionable teachers of the faith. Our trust has been more than shaken, and for those who are victims of abuse & coverup, it has been shattered. Our Church and its Bishops should have ranked innocent young people, above the interests of self-serving adults, who wrongheadedly protected their fraternity or the institutional Church. I pray that Pope Francis pursues this mission with all his strength.

Mike Theman
5 months ago

Get rid of the priests who exhibit same-sex attraction and are inclined to act upon it. Once they're gone, vocations of non-homosexual men should increase. Bring back altar boys and keep the little girls away from the priests, as was always understood to be good practice.

In America, the masculine man is becoming an outcast in his own country; perhaps they can be the new face of the priesthood, which would be a welcome change from Father Pedophile.

Anne Danielson
5 months ago

"Another was the change of direction in the Chilean church willed by John Paul II through his appointment of bishops more focused on sexual morality than on social justice."
Social Justice depends on sexual morality which is always respectful of the inherent God Given Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter.

Shirley Vaughn
5 months ago

I believe you are correct that one cannot be a true proponent of social justice without also being a proponent of sexual morality, but the reverse is not true. One can be very focused on sexual morality and never move out to concern for the other aspects of life that demand attention if the dignity of the person is to be realized.
However, after reading much of what has been written about the situation in Chile, I must question how bishops focused on sexual morality could cover-up these sexual crimes and try to make the victims into criminals. Their version of sexual morality is very different from the one I was taught.

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