The Chilean Church has been publicly grappling with its sex-abuse scandal for more than a half decade. In 2011, the Vatican announced that it had found Karadima guilty of sexually abusing minors. Subsequent developments suggested that Chilean bishops tried to keep the voices of abuse victims from being heard. Leaked emails showed that two cardinals sought to block Cruz, the Chilean abuse survivor, from serving on Pope Francis’s commission for the protection of minors. Victims accused Barros, who spent more than 30 years working with Karadima, of witnessing and covering up the abuse. Yet in 2015, Francis appointed him bishop of a diocese in southern Chile. When protesters objected to the move, the pope called them “dumb,” saying they had no proof against Barros.
Three years later, the pope continued this inflammatory rhetoric during an official visit to Latin America. “The day someone brings me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk,” Francis said during a stop in Iquique, a city in northern Chile, in January 2018. “But there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?” He later reiterated this view during a conversation with journalists aboard the papal plane: “One who says with insistence, without having the evidence, that you have done something, that is calumny.” Sex-abuse survivors, advocates, and Chilean Catholics were reportedly shocked by the comments.
Just a few months later, Francis has reversed course. After Vatican investigators put together a 2,300-page report based on 64 interviews about what had happened in Chile, the pope wrote a letter to the country’s bishops confessing “pain and shame” about what had happened there. He said he had made “serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of the situation, especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information,” according to a translation by the Catholic News Agency. He called on the bishops to meet with him in Rome, and invited the Chilean victims to come and share their stories with him as well. At the conclusion of Francis’s three-day meeting with the bishops, all of them offered to resign, seeking forgiveness for the “grave errors and omissions we committed.” It is not yet clear which, if any, of the resignations Francis will accept.
Most importantly, Francis has made a tonal change. Where he was once defensive and barbed about the situation in Chile, accusing the Church’s critics of being “led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this,” he has shifted his focus to the pain of the victims and the errors of the Church.
“I am overcome with emotion after spending a week at the pope’s house and talking with him for hours,” said Cruz, the abuse victim, in his interview with El País. “The pope treated us like kings in Santa Marta,” the Vatican guesthouse where Francis lives, “and treated the bishops like children. It is obvious that we’re the ones that he believed.” While the pope’s alleged comments on Cruz’s homosexuality have not been confirmed by the Vatican, they are in keeping with his approach: one that’s fundamentally pastoral and focused on individual cases, rather than strictures and dogma.