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Dramatic papal letter on Chilean crisis leaves next steps uncertain [News Analysis]

April 12, 2018

In his letter to the bishops of Chile, Pope Francis acknowledges “serious mistakes” in his handling of sex-abuse complaints, but leaves open—at least for now—the question of how he will respond to the situation.

In particular, the Holy Father does not address the question of whether Bishop Juan Barros—the prelate he promoted, despite outcries over the bishop’s reported failure to report abuse—will remain in office. In the past Pope Francis had angrily dismissed complaints about Bishop Barros, saying that the bishop’s critics had been duped by leftist propaganda and had failed to provide serious evidence to support their claims. Although the Pope does not mention Bishop Barros by name in his letter, the overall message gives a clear indication that he now recognizes the validity of complaints.

“I ask forgiveness of all those I have offended and I hope to be able to do it personally in the coming weeks,” the Pontiff writes, in the 3-page letter that was made public jointly by the Vatican and the Chilean bishops’ conference. The Pope is reportedly planning to meet personally with some of the victims of a notorious abuser, Father Fernando Karadima, who was a close associate of Bishop Barros.

Karadima has been an influential and divisive figure in the Chilean Church, with many powerful defenders in the local hierarchy. The Pope’s report that he was hampered in his earlier decisions by “the lack of truthful and balanced information” reflects poorly on Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, the retired Archbishop of Santiago. Cardinal Errazuriz sought to persuade Vatican officials that they should not give credence to Karadima’s accusers. Although he has retired from active pastoral service, the 84-year-old Chilean prelate remains a member of the Council of Cardinals, the Pope’s inner circle of advisers. The implicit criticism of his role in this affair could be an indication that he will be asked to step down from that position. Marie Collins, a former member of the special papal commission on abuse, remarked: “For any who did mislead [the Pontiff] or give him untruthful advice, at any level in the Church, there have to be consequences.”

The next steps in the Vatican response to the Chilean situation will apparently be determined when the Pope meets with members of the Chilean hierarchy. In his letter the Pontiff said that he wanted “to humbly request your collaboration and assistance in discerning the short-, mid-, and long-term measures that must be adopted to re-establish ecclesial communion in Chile.” He has asked the Chilean bishops to meet with him in Rome for that purpose, asking the secretary-general of the bishops’ conference to arrange an appropriate date.

The Pope’s dramatic letter to the Chilean hierarchy came in response to a thorough report on the abuse complaints in Chile, drafted by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the former top prosecutor for the Vatican in clerical abuse cases. After interviewing victims and speaking with Chilean clerics, Archbishop Scicluna presented the Pope with a report that ran more than 2,300 pages. Pope Francis said that the testimonies contained in that report “speak in a stark way, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives, and I confess to you that that causes me sorrow and shame.”


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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Comares - Apr. 14, 2018 8:57 AM ET USA

    I do not believe that clerical homosexuality is necessarily at the root of this scandal. What is at the root of all of the abuse cases is the failure, of those priests and others who have abused, to truly understand the obligation to chastity and, I suspect a spiritual and prayer life to support and sustain them in their Vocation.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Apr. 13, 2018 6:42 PM ET USA

    What a mealymouthed word: offended! How about hurt? grieved?

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 12, 2018 7:11 PM ET USA

    At the very root of this scandal, and all others like it, is clerical homosexuality: the ordinations of men with same sex attraction disorder, followed by their promotions, covering up for each other within networks of like-minded friends, leading to deception even at the highest levels of Church authority and continued scandalizing of the faithful. This does not serve, preach or glorify Christ.

  • Posted by: rghatt6599 - Apr. 12, 2018 5:53 PM ET USA

    The pope’s heartfelt apology was necessary but there are still unanswered questions. Did the pope read the letter handed to him by Cardinal O’Malley? Given the cardinal’s role and credibility on this issue it would be shocking if the pope thought he had no need to review its contents. The excerpts of the letter that have been made public testimonies - to quote the pope’s apology “speak in a stark way, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives, and I confess to you that that causes me sorrow and shame.” If the pope did read the letter why was he not moved to take immediate action?