VATICAN CITY — At the close of their three-day meeting with Pope Francis, all the bishops of Chile asked victims of the country’s abuse scandal for forgiveness and presented written resignations to the Pope, who must decide whether to accept or reject them.
In a written May 18 statement, the bishops thanked Pope Francis for his “paternal listening and fraternal correction,” and asked forgiveness for the pain caused from victims, the Pope, the People of God and the country because of their “serious errors and omissions.”
The statement was read aloud to the press in Spanish by Bishop Juan Ignacio González of San Bernardo, a member of Chile’s national commission for the protection of minors, and in Italian by Auxiliary Bishop Fernando Ramos of Santiago, the secretary of the Chilean bishops’ conference.
In the statement, the bishops thanked Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Msgr. Jordi Bertomeu for an in-depth investigation of the crisis they carried out earlier this year.
They also thanked victims for their “perseverance and courage, despite the enormous personal, spiritual, social and familial difficulties they have had to face, “many times in the midst of incomprehension and attacks from their own ecclesial community.”
They asked for the victims’ help going forward and said that at the end of their last session with the Pope May 17, each of the active bishops presented a written resignation and will await the Holy Father’s decision to either accept or reject it.
In comments to the press, Bishop González said for now the bishops will return to their dioceses and will continue their work as usual until hearing from the Pope, who will either reject their resignation, accept it immediately, or put it into effect only once a new bishop is named.
The May 15-17 gathering between Pope Francis and the 34 Chilean bishops, two of whom have already retired, was called for by the Holy Father himself last month following an investigation into abuse cover-up by Church hierarchy in Chile, resulting in a 2,300-page report. To date, the report has not been made public.
The investigation was initially centered around Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, appointed to the diocese in 2015 and accused by at least one victim of covering up abuses of Chilean priest Fernando Karadima.
In 2011, Father Karadima was convicted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of abusing minors and sentenced to a life of prayer and solitude. Allegations of cover-up were also made against three other bishops — Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic and Horacio Valenzuela — whom Father Karadima’s victims accuse of knowing about Karadima’s crimes and failing to act.
Pope Francis initially defended Bishop Barros, saying he had received no evidence of the bishop’s guilt, and called accusations against him “calumny” during a trip to Chile in January. However, after receiving Scicluna’s report, Francis apologized and asked to meet the bishops and more outspoken survivors in person.
In a scathing letter from the Pope to Chilean bishops that was leaked to Chilean television station T13 May 17, Pope Francis skewered the Chilean prelates for a systematic cover-up of abuse involving not only the destruction of documents, but superficial investigations that led to moving accused abusers to other schools or parishes where they had access to children.
Although victims of the Chilean abuse scandals have often been discredited and accused of making up stories to attack the Church, the Pope’s letter, which he gave to the bishops during their three-day meeting, appeared to side with the victims based on the conclusions of Archbishop Scicluna’s report.
In Francis’ footnotes, he noted how the investigation found that while some religious had been expelled from their orders due to “immoral conduct,” blaming their “criminal acts” on simple weakness, they were then transferred to other parishes or dioceses and given jobs where they had “daily and direct contact with minors.”
The reference was likely not only to Father Karadima, but to other religious orders in which scandals have recently come to light, including the Salesians, Franciscans and the Marist Brothers.
In the letter, Francis said there had also been serious flaws in handling cases of “delicta graviora,” meaning “grave offenses,” which “corroborate with some of the worrying information that some Roman dicasteries have begun to be aware of.”
These errors, he said, have to do particularly with the reception of complaints and “notitiae crimini,” or information on the crimes, which “in not a few cases have been classified very superficially as improbable,” despite bearing signs of being a serious crime.
In some cases, the Pope wrote, it took months for complaints to be investigated, and in others they were not investigated at all. In still other cases, he said, there was clear evidence of “very serious negligence in the protection of children and vulnerable children on the part of bishops and religious superiors.”
Pope Francis said he was “perplexed and ashamed” to have read statements saying Church officials investigating abuse allegations had been pressured, and that in some cases, documents had been destroyed by those in charge of diocesan archives.
These actions, Francis said, constitute “an absolute lack of respect for canonical procedure and, even more, reprehensible practices which must be avoided in the future.”
The problems, the Pope said, do not belong to just one group of people, but are the result of a fractured seminary process.
In the case of many abusers, problems had been detected while they were in seminary or the novitiate, he said, noting that Archbishop Scicluna’s investigation contained “serious accusations against some bishops or superiors who sent priests suspected of active homosexuality to these educational institutions.”
In the wider letter, Pope Francis stressed the need to recognize not only the damage done, but also the underlying causes that led to abuse and cover-up and to identify ways to repair the pain and suffering many have endured.
He said the problem is not isolated, but everyone is responsible, “I being the first,” and that no one can be exempted by “moving the problem onto the backs of others.”
“We need a change, we know it, we need it and we desire it,” he said, and encouraged bishops to put Christ at the center. He said in recent history, the Chilean Church has lost this focus, putting itself at the center instead of the Lord.
“I don’t know what came first,” he said, “if the loss of prophetic strength resulted in the change of center, or the change of center led to the loss of the prophecy that was so characteristic in you.”
He cautioned the bishops against assuming an attitude of “messianism,” in which they seek to promote themselves as “the only interpreters of God’s will.” Francis also warned the prelates not to fall into an “elite psychology," which he said can overshadow the way issues are handled.
“An elite or elitist psychology ends up generating dynamics of division, separation and 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 making it clear that they are interested in neither Jesus Christ or others,” he said.
Messianism, elitism and clericalism, Francis continued, “are all synonyms for perversion in ecclesial being; and also synonymous with perversion is the loss of the healthy conscience of knowing that we belong to the holy People of God, which precedes us and which — thanks to God — will succeed us.”
Prayer and sincere recognition of one’s failings are necessary for grace to work, he said, adding that this saves a person from “the temptation and pretension of wanting to occupy spaces, and especially in a place that does not correspond to us: that of the Lord.”
In terms of whether or not heads will roll, the pope said removing people from office “must be done, but it is not enough, we must go further.”
The problems the Church in Chile faces are wider, he said, and because of this “it would be irresponsible on our part not to delve into the roots and structures that allowed these specific events to happen and to be perpetuated.”
“It would be a serious omission on our part not to know the roots,” he said, and “to believe that only the removal of people, without anything more, would generate the health of the body,” calling that “a great fallacy.”
“There is no doubt that it will help, and it is necessary to do it, but I repeat, it is not enough, since this thought would dispense us from the responsibility and participation that corresponds to us within the ecclesial body,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis closed his letter asking the bishops to guard against the temptation of wanting to “save their skin” and their reputations, explaining that “the severity of events does not allow us to become expert hunters of scapegoats.”
“All this requires us to have seriousness and co-responsibility to take on the problems as symptoms of an ecclesial whole, which we are invited to analyze, and which also asks us to seek all the necessary mediation so that they are never perpetuated again.”