Pope Francis Admits to Making ‘Serious Mistakes’ in Chile Sex Abuse Case

In a letter to Chile’s bishops, the Pope admitted to misjudging the severity of the affair: ‘I have made serious mistakes in the judgement and perception of the situation, especially due to a lack of truthful and balanced information.’

Pope Francis meditates during the Mass for the Missionaries of Mercy April 10.
Pope Francis meditates during the Mass for the Missionaries of Mercy April 10. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — In a letter addressed to Chile’s bishops, Pope Francis admitted to making “serious mistakes” in handling the nation’s massive sex abuse crisis and asked for forgiveness.

The Holy Father summoned Chile’s bishops to Rome to address the issue, and invited victims to meet with him, as well.

Referring to a recent investigation of abuse cover-up in Chile carried out by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, Pope Francis said that after a “slow reading” of the report, “I can affirm that all the testimonies collected speak in a stark manner, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives and I confess that this has caused me pain and shame.”

Francis admitted to misjudging the severity of the affair, telling Chile’s bishops that “I have made serious mistakes in the judgement and perception of the situation, especially due to a lack of truthful and balanced information.”

He asked the bishops to “faithfully communicate” this recognition, and he apologized to all those he might have offended.

In addition, he summoned all of Chile’s 32 bishops to Rome to discuss the conclusions of Archbishop Scicluna’s report in the third week of May, where they will discussion the conclusions of the report as well the Pope’s own conclusions on the matter.

In his letter, signed April 8, Divine Mercy Sunday, Francis said he wants the meeting to be “a fraternal moment, without prejudices or preconceived ideas, with the sole objective of making the truth shine in our lives.”

The decision to summon an entire bishops’ conference to Rome is remarkably significant. Nothing of the nature has happened since April 2002, when John Paul II met with 12 of 13 U.S. cardinals, eight of whom headed major dioceses, and two high-level representatives of the USCCB at the Vatican to address the abuse crisis in the United States, and told them they had handled the situation wrong.

In a tweet after an April 11 news conference on the letter in Chile, Jaime Coiro, spokesman for the Chilean bishops conference, said that in the coming weeks Pope Francis will also meet with some victims of abuse carried out by Chilean clergy, asking each one personally for forgiveness.

In comments to the media, Coiro recognized the damage done to minors who were abused, saying “we were not able to care for them adequately.” The coming weeks, he said, will be “an intense renewal of our vocation and mission” for the Church in Chile.

The Pope’s letter comes after Archbishop Scicluna made a Feb. 19-25 visit to the United States and Chile to investigate accusations of negligence on the part of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, who has been accused of covering up abuse of his longtime friend Fernando Karadima.

While in Chile, Archbishop Scicluna interviewed some 64 people related to the accusations and compiled an report that is some 2,300 pages long, which he delivered to Pope Francis March 20.

In 2011, Karadima was found guilty by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of sexually abusing several minors during the 1980s and 1990s, and sentenced to a life of prayer and solitude.

Opponents of Bishop Barros have been vocal since his 2015 appointment to lead the Diocese of Osorno, with many, including a number of Karadima’s victims, accusing the bishop of covering up the abuse, and also also at times participating.

Karadima’s victims have also accused three other Chilean bishops in addition to Bishop Barros who had been close to Karadima — Auxiliary Bishop Andrés Arteaga of Santiago, Bishop Tomislav Koljatic of Linares and Horacio Valenzuela of Talca — of cover-up.

Despite the protests, Bishop Barros has maintained his innocence, saying he didn’t know the abuse was happening. Pope Francis has backed him, and has refused to allow him to step down from his post, though the bishop has submitted a letter of resignation multiple times.

Francis’ decision to send Archbishop Scicluna to Santiago to investigate the accusations came after controversy flared during the pope’s Jan. 15-18 visit to Chile, during which he responded to a Chilean journalist who asked about the Bishop Barros issue, saying the accusations were “calumny,” because there was no proof.

The comment prompted uproar from the bishop’s critics, several of whom are victims of Karadima’s abuse. It also prompted Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, one of the Pope’s nine cardinal advisers and head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to release a statement saying the words were painful to victims.

In a conversation with journalists on the way back to Rome, Pope Francis apologized, but said there was no evidence condemning Bishop Barros, and that so far, no victims had come forward.

However, less than one week after the decision to send Archbishop Scicluna to Chile was announced, one of Karadima’s victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, said in an interview with The Associated Press that in 2015 he had sent a letter to the Pope through the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, alleging that Bishop Barros had seen Karadima’s abuse and had at times participated.

Members of the commission confirmed the news, and said the commission’s head, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, had indeed handed the letter to Pope Francis, raising the question of whether the Pope actually read the letter.

Before going to Santiago Feb. 19 to interview witnesses related to the Bishop Barros accusations, Archbishop Scicluna stopped in New York to interview Cruz. He then went to Santiago to interview additional witnesses related to the case.

Archbishop Scicluna is a well-regarded Vatican expert on sex abuse appeals cases. In addition to heading the Archdiocese of Malta, in 2015 he was named by the Pope to oversee a team in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith charged with handling appeals filed by clergy accused of abuse. He served as the congregation’s Promoter of Justice for 17 years, and is widely known for his expertise in the canonical norms governing allegations of sexual abuse.

In addition to his interviews on the Bishop Barros case, Scicluna also met with alleged victims of abuse by the Marist Brothers, a move that seemingly broadened the scope of his mandate in the country.

In August 2017, the Marist Brothers reported that a member of the congregation had admitted to abusing 14 boys in Chile. Earlier this year, the Marist Brothers began a canonical investigation of allegations of sexual abuse in Chile by some of its members.

In his letter to Chile’s bishops, Pope Francis said now is an “opportune” time to “put the Church of Chile in a state of prayer.”

“Now more than ever we cannot fall back into the temptation of verbiage or stain in ‘universals,’ he said, and told the bishops to look to Christ in the coming days and weeks.

“Let us look at his life and gestures, especially when he shows compassion and mercy to those who have erred. Let us love in the truth, let us ask for wisdom of heart and allow ourselves to be converted.”