02 May 2018 | by Austen Ivereigh
A Church in denial: Pope Francis summons Chile's bishops to Rome
After his off-the-cuff remarks in Iquique caused uproar, when he snappily insisted to journalists that the charges against Barros were a “calumny”, the Pope claimed on the flight back to Rome that Karadima’s victims had never supplied convincing evidence. One of them, Juan Carlos Cruz, angrily pointed out that he had sent the Pope a letter in 2015 detailing the allegations against Barros. Cardinal Sean O’Malley – one of Francis’ key advisers on clergy sexual abuse – confirmed that he had personally passed it to him.
But, on 30 January, Francis then took a decision that showed he had lost confidence in his own judgment of the situation. He announced that he was sending the fearless abuse prosecutor, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to Chile, along with a Spanish priest, Fr Jordi Bartomeu, from the Vatican’s section for processing abuse cases. After spending much of February taking evidence from 64 victims and other witnesses, Archbishop Scicluna returned with a 2,300-page report, which he and Francis spent many hours discussing at the end of the month.
The report is not just about Barros and Karadima, however. It documents abuses by the Marist Brothers, the Salesians and Franciscans among others, repeatedly brushed aside by many of the bishops. It exposes a culture in the Chilean Church of omertà, of consistently putting the institution before the victims, of denial and of inaction.
Francis took the report deep into his Easter. On 8 April, he sent a three-page letter to the Chilean episcopate, which was dramatically read out at their plenary gathering in the Pacific coastal town of Punta de Tralca. The Secretariat of State had not seen the letter before it was sent. Nor had it been delivered to the bishops via the nuncio, as would be normal on such occasions. In it, the Pope apologised for his “serious errors in the evaluation and perception of the situation, due especially to the lack of true and balanced information”, and announced that he would meet three of the victims in Rome, and, after that, the bishops. He was literally putting the victims, so long ignored and belittled, first.
So far Cruz, James Hamilton and Andrés Murillo are keeping the content of the discussions last weekend confidential, but they have expressed their delight at the warmth of the Pope’s welcome, the sincerity of the talks, and the determined, constructive approach he is taking. Cruz, the most critical of the three, tweeted on Sunday that the Pope had listened to him “with great respect, affection, and closeness, like a father”, and that as result, he had “more hope in the future of the Church, though the task is enormous”.
There is much more to this crisis than the decision to appoint Barros to the Diocese of Osorno in 2015. The Pope’s letter to the bishops does not mention him. Francis speaks instead of “the sorrow of so many victims of grave abuses of conscience and power and, in particular, of sexual abuse committed by several consecrated persons against minors” who were “robbed of their innocence”.
Because no one is accusing Barros of committing abuse himself – only of witnessing the abuse while still a priest, which he has always denied – and because of the reference to “several consecrated persons”, it is clear that the letter is about the need to face frankly a wider institutional breakdown. In his letter, Francis called all 32 Chilean bishops to Rome in mid-May to “restore confidence in the Church, a confidence broken by our errors and sins, and to heal the wounds that continue to bleed in the whole of Chilean society.” He wants the bishops to work out what needs to be done to “repair the scandal so far as possible and to re-establish justice”.
The letter was essentially part two of the speech he had given the Religious and clergy at Santiago Cathedral in January, in which he charted a transition from desolation to consolation by honestly admitting failure rather than taking refuge in the false consolation of nostalgia and institutional defensiveness.
That speech referenced, in a footnote, a prologue that Francis had written in the late-1980s to a translation of the messages of the superior generals who lived through the suppression of the Society of Jesus. In it, he wrote that these cartas de la tribulación – letters in a time of tribulation – were a guide to how the Church should endure desolation. Francis invited the bishops, still reeling from the contempt in which the Church in Chile is held, not to cling to wounded pride but prayerfully to “allow ourselves to be converted”.
The commissioning of the Scicluna report, the Pope’s humble apology and the clearing of his diary so that he could listen to the victims models the attitude that he hopes will allow God’s grace to enter a defensive institution obsessed with its bella figura.
Part of the reason for the Pope’s vigorous defence of Barros was his realisation that this psychologically fragile man was being scapegoated by the other bishops, as a way of avoiding their own failures. This continued even after the bishops had received the Pope’s letter: two weeks ago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, who took over as Archbishop of Santiago after the Karadima verdict, denied misinforming the Pope and called for Barros to step aside, whether or not he was innocent.
Ezzati’s predecessor, Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, who sits on Francis’ cardinals’ council, the C9, also strenuously denied withholding information from the Pope, and blamed the nuncio, Ivo Scapolo, for Barros’ appointment. After the papal visit, he sharply criticised Barros – once his auxiliary when he headed Valparaíso Diocese in the 1990s – for giving press interviews. He has also referred to Cruz as a “liar” and a “serpent”, out to destroy the Chilean Church.
The unedifying sight of back-biting cardinals signals the breakdown of the “Sodano-era” Chilean Church. To a far greater extent than anywhere else in Latin America, the episcopate in Chile is the product of John Paul II’s mighty secretary of state from 1991, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, papal nuncio to Chile from 1978 to 1988, during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The general was a close ally of Karadima, and many of his top brass lived in and around his central Santiago parish of El Bosque, a magnet for the upper-middle classes who flocked to its slick liturgies and celebrity preachers. Around 300 young people would gather each week before Mass to listen to Karadima talk of sainthood, which he defined as a form of absolute obedience.
The impeccably dressed seducer with slicked-back hair cut an aristocratic figure with an aura of piety and unctuousness that perfectly fitted the upper-class idea of sanctity. Karadima was especially adept at spotting vulnerable young men like Hamilton and Cruz. Karadima sexually abused Hamilton over two decades, even after he was married.
El Bosque produced dozens of “prize” priestly vocations from Santiago’s professional classes, a number of whom, promoted by Karadima and Sodano, went on to occupy key posts in the Chilean Church. El Bosque was at the vanguard of Sodano’s new, Pinochet-friendly, patriotic and pro-market Catholicism, ousting the prophetic, socially-engaged church of Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, Archbishop of Santiago until the early 1980s. Francis pointedly cited Cardinal Silva in virtually every address he gave in January.
It was hard for Chile’s Catholic professional classes to believe the three victims when they finally went public in 2010 with a lawsuit against Karadima, after years of being blocked by Errázuriz. The statute of limitations prevented Karadima’s criminal conviction, but in 2011 the Vatican found him guilty and sentenced him to prayer and penance. Since then, the victims have been pressing for wider reform, criticising Francis’ appointments of Ezzati to Santiago and Barros to Osorno and bringing a lawsuit against the archdiocese. Francis was persuaded by Errázuriz and Ezzati to see the victims as self-interested and financially motivated. Scicluna’s report shatters that lens.
What will happen mow? Francis could renew the episcopate at a stroke simply by accepting the resignations of five bishops (including Ezzati) on the grounds of age, and asking the four karadimista bishops to follow suit. In the longer term, change will come by promoting bishops like Cristián Roncagliolo, whom Francis named (possibly with an eye to the succession) as auxiliary of Santiago in March last year; Roncagliolo was part of Bergoglio’s drafting team in Aparecida in 2007, and has embraced the pastoral, evangelising vision of that Latin American Church assembly. That is the real goal here. Francis wants a Church that is “unafraid to go out to serve a wounded humanity”, as he put it in his cathedral address.
And there is reason, finally, to hope that this will happen. The president of the bishops’ conference, Santiago Silva, said last weekend that the problems went deeper than child abuse and the manipulation of consciences. He admitted that the Church in Chile had to rethink its “way of being Church”. This humility is new. Perhaps, at last, Chile’s ecclesiastical failure will be the launchpad of its pastoral conversion.
Austen Ivereigh is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.