By JD Flynn
On Wednesday, three Chilean survivors of clerical sexual abuse held a press conference to discuss recent conversations with Pope Francis about the circumstances of their abuse.
Juan Carlos Cruz, along with James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo, were sexually abused by Fr. Fernando Karadima, who in 2011 was found guilty by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of sexually abusing minors during the 1980s and 1990s. Karadima was sentenced to a life of prayer and solitude.
Karadima’s abuse has drawn recent attention because of long-rumored reports that his one-time friend, now-Bishop Juan Barros, helped to cover up the abuse or was a participant in it. Barros was appointed to lead the Diocese of Osorno in January 2015, despite considerable protest in Chile, and despite objections from some of Chile’s bishops. Barros’ appointment has been a matter of serious controversy ever since.
In January of this year, Pope Francis visited Chile and publicly defended Barros, saying that accusations against him were “calumny,” and that he had seen no proof of the bishop’s involvement in Karadima’s abuse. Those remarks drew serious rebukes, including one from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, chair of the pope’s commission on sexual abuse, and the pope apologized for the tone of his remarks, while insisting on the innocence of Barros.
After Francis visited Chile, he sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a highly regarded canonical expert in clerical sexual abuse, to investigate the claims against Barros.
Shortly after Scicluna was dispatched to Chile, the Associated Press reported that in February 2015, Cruz had sent Francis a letter detailing accusations that Barros was complicit in Karadima’s abuse. Barros was installed as Bishop of Osorno in March 2015, a little more than a month after Cruz’ letter was sent. O’Malley was said to have delivered the letter to the pope in April 2015.
After his visit to Chile, Scicluna filed a 2,300 page report on the matter, which has not been made publicly available.
On April 11, Francis sent a letter to Chile’s bishops saying that he had made “serious errors in judgement regarding the matter,” which he attributed to “a lack of truthful and balanced information.”
The pope invited the three abuse survivors to meet with him, and summoned Chile’s entire episcopate to meet with him in the Vatican; that meeting will take place later this month.
During their May 2 press conference, the abuse survivors said Francis had apologized to them for “being part of the problem,” and they said the pope was “very attentive, receptive, and very empathetic” while they spoke “frankly and respectfully” with him.
Cruz told reporters that “it was clear that the pope was misinformed.” The survivors mentioned that Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, apostolic nuncio to Chile, was part of the problem, along with Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, Archbishop Emeritus of Santiago and a member of Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisers.
Hamilton told reporters that Errazuriz failed to act on abuse reports, saying that the cardinal “was covering up for more than 5 years the criminal of Karadima and all of his acts.”
It is possible that at the time Francis appointed Barros to Osorno he was misinformed, especially if Errazuriz and Scalpo failed to adequately inform the pope of any credible reports against Barros.
But the lingering question is whether, and how, Pope Francis remained misinformed after Cruz wrote a letter to the pope.
In the first place, is it possible that O’Malley did not deliver the letter to Pope Francis?
In April 2015, Marie Collins, then a member of the pope’s sexual abuse commission, delivered to O’Malley Cruz’ letter, and asked him to the deliver it to Pope Francis.
The Archdiocese of Boston declined to comment on this matter to CNA, referring questions to the Vatican. The Vatican’s press office declined to answer questions on the letter.
However, the Associated Press reports that O’Malley later told both Collins and Cruz that he had delivered the letter to the pope and communicated their concerns about Barros.
In February, Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen also said that O’Malley’s spokesman, Terry Donilon, “did confirm to me that O’Malley, in fact, delivered to the pope a letter from Juan Carlos Cruz in which Cruz accused Barros of knowing that a notorious priest named Francisco Karadima routinely molested boys, including Cruz himself.”
O’Malley’s credibility on sexual abuse matters is unimpeachable, and he seems to have communicated to Cruz, Collins, and Donilon that he delivered the letter. To Cruz and Collins, he also seems to have confirmed conveying their concerns to Pope Francis.
It is unlikely that the letter went undelivered.
What is not clear is how O’Malley delivered the letter: whether he handed it directly to Pope Francis, and summarized the contents, or whether he delivered it to an aide.
If O’Malley delivered the letter to an aide, or if Francis passed it on to an aide, it is possible that it never made its way back to the pope. In that case, serious questions would need to be answered about whether someone on the pope’s personal staff was protecting Barros, or shielding Francis from bad news. Such things would not be unprecedented; but in a matter as serious as this, they demand accountability.
It is also possible, and perhaps most probable, that although Francis says he was misinformed, he did read the 2015 letter from Cruz.
It seems likely that after reading it, Francis would have consulted with Errazuriz, his close adviser and a Chilean. Given that Errazuriz is already alleged to have discounted allegations involving Barros, he might have discredited Cruz’ account.
Francis had previously blamed criticism of Barros on Chile’s “leftists.” It is possible that Errazuriz, Scalpo, or others convinced the pope that Cruz’ allegations were rooted in a political attack on the Church, or on Barros. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has shown little patience for Latin American “leftists.” If that scenario is the case, the mistake was accepting the narrative discrediting Cruz, instead of investigating the matter.
Francis has made mistakes before regarding sexual abuse, most notably in the case of Fr. Mauro Inzoli, an Italian removed from ministry by Benedict XVI, restored to ministry by Francis in 2014, and then dismissed from the clerical state by Francis in 2017, after he was sentenced in 2016 by a civil court to a prison term for eight counts of sexually abusing children. Francis blamed his initial reversal on being new to his office, and not understanding the case fully.
Some clerics close to the pope say that Francis was persuaded to restore Inzoli to ministry after pontifical advisers made a personal plea to the pope. This has raised the question of whether, in matters of sexual abuse, Francis trusts advisers without sufficiently investigating circumstances himself.
Nevertheless, Francis has long advocated a position of “zero tolerance” for clerics who commit abuse, and taken a hard line on bishops who fail to take abuse allegations seriously. In 2015, he accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, then Bishop of Kansas City-Saint Joseph, who was convicted of a misdemeanor after failing to report allegations that a priest was in possession of child pornography. Ironically, some of Finn’s decisions in that affair were attributed to trust placed in advisers who turned out to be wrong.
After meeting with the pope, Karadima’s victims told reporters that they are “waiting for actions.” They’re not the only ones. How Francis acts now has the potential to define the legacy of his pontificate.
The pope is likely to accept the resignation of Bishop Juan Barros in the weeks to come. He will also have to decide who was responsible for misinforming him, and what the consequences will be. And he will have to consider carefully when to trust advisers, and when he is obliged to take matters into his own hands.