There has never been anything quite like the letter, dated Divine Mercy Sunday, that Pope Francis wrote to the bishops of Chile. In passionate, penitential and prayerful prose, the Holy Father reversed himself completely on the very issue that so marred his apostolic visit to Chile earlier this year.
He offered a sincere, frank and humble apology for mishandling the case of Bishop Juan Barros. He had appointed Barros in 2015 to be bishop of Osorno, Chile, despite accusations that Bishop Barros had been aware that his mentor, Father Fernando Karadima, had sexually abused minors and did nothing to prevent it or report it.
For three years, the Holy Father refused to reconsider the appointment, despite being begged to do so by the leadership of the Chilean bishops’ conference, despite the insistence of Father Karadima’s victims, despite a widespread consensus in Chile that Bishop Barros is unsuitable and despite the bishop himself offering to resign, not once but twice.
The Holy Father’s denunciations of his critics on the Bishop Barros matter — accusing them of being stupid, of being politically manipulated and of being guilty of the serious sin of calumny — were ferocious in their intensity.
Now, after receiving the report of the Church’s most senior sex-crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the contrition is similarly intense. The Holy Father will meet in person with some of the victims later this month in Rome to ask forgiveness in person.
The only recent precedent for a personal papal apology was the letter that Pope Benedict XVI wrote in March 2009, after lifting the excommunication on bishops who had been illicitly consecrated in the Society of St. Pius X. One of them, unbeknownst to the Holy Father, was a Holocaust-denier, and the affair became a global conflagration that threatened Catholic-Jewish relations. Benedict then wrote a letter to the bishops of the world explaining what had happened and expressing regret for his mistakes.
The letter of Pope Francis, though, is more far-reaching, because the offense was greater: not a onetime oversight, but a mistaken judgment sustained and defended over several years.
“I have made serious mistakes in the judgement and perception of the situation, especially due to a lack of truthful and balanced information,” Francis wrote.
He has asked the entire Chilean episcopate — 32 bishops — to come to Rome in May to discuss together the “short, medium and long-term” steps that must follow. That, too, is extremely rare. In 1980, St. John Paul II called the Dutch bishops together for a special synod, but there were only seven of them. And in 1998, when all the Australian bishops were already in Rome for the Oceania synod, they were convoked together to discuss the weak state of the Church Down Under. And the U.S. cardinals were called in 2002.
What, then, can be expected after the most extraordinary papal letter, which has been initially well-received in Chile?
- The humility and contrition of the Holy Father has repaired already some of the damage wrought during his visit. It provides, as it were, another hearing from Chilean society for the Church. Hence, the next two months are critical for what Pope Francis and the Chilean bishops will say and do.
- The papal meeting with the principal Karadima victims will be a historic moment. No one has ever been invited to the Vatican to receive a personal apology and request for forgiveness from a pope for his own personal actions. Therefore, no one really knows how such a meeting should be organized. Depending on how it is done, it could well provide for Pope Francis an image as famous as the prison meeting of St. John Paul II with the assassin who attempted to kill him. This time, though, it will not be the Pope providing a model of forgiveness, but, rather, imploring it for himself.
- As for Bishop Barros, it remains a question of why his twice-offered resignation was not accepted immediately, along with the publication of Pope Francis’ letter. It is obvious now that he will go, but that he hasn’t already suggests that Pope Francis has something more sweeping in mind.
- Alongside Bishop Barros, there are two other Chilean bishops who were in the sphere of Father Karadima. In late 2014, the apostolic nuncio in Chile discussed having all three step down. Will they all now go at the same time as Bishop Barros?
- The senior archbishop in Chile, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati of Santiago, is already past the retirement age. Is there a new archbishop to be had who can rebuild trust and lead the Church through a period of purification? Will that also be on the agenda at the May meeting in Rome?
- Pope Francis blamed his wrong judgments on a “lack of truthful and balanced information.” It is already well-known that he had plenty of information on why Bishop Barros should not be appointed to Osorno, some of it from the most senior bishops in Chile. Why did the Holy Father not trust that information? Who advised him that it was not trustworthy information or provided him with other information that was false? In May, will the Chilean bishops, in effect, be asked to take the blame for that? Will they accept that role?
- A principal duty of an apostolic nuncio is to keep the Holy See well-informed. The papal letter to Chile is a public admission that the nuncio in Santiago, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, failed to do that. Such a public vote of no confidence from the Pope himself makes it impossible for the archbishop to continue in Chile. It would be difficult to see how he could be sent anywhere else either, without that country wondering why it was being sent damaged goods.
- Much closer to home, the Holy Father will have to consider the position of Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz on the “council of cardinals,” the group of his closest advisers. Cardinal Errázuriz was chosen for the council in 2013, when he was already retired and almost 80 years old. Now 84, he spends several days with Pope Francis every few months when the council meets. It is impossible that he did not advise Pope Francis on Barros. Even more, he was the archbishop when the Father Karadima scandal first came to light and has already admitted that he dismissed the victims. All that was known in 2013 when Pope Francis chose him for the council. Now it will be very hard to explain his continuing presence. Even more, it raises the question of how well the council is serving the Pope if Cardinal Errázuriz failed him in such a grave matter.
- Finally, the Bishop Barros affair raises questions about who the Holy Father listens to. He is famous for calling ordinary people on the phone himself, or getting in touch with his news agent to cancel his subscription. How, then, is it possible that in three years he was not able to get the information he needed, until criticism after the Chile trip forced his hand?