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 press 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 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 long-time friend Fernando Karadima.
While on the ground, 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 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.
In addition to Barros, Karadima's victims have also accused three other Chilean bishops who had been close to Karadima – Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic and Horacio Valenzuela – of cover-up.
Despite the protests, Barros has maintained his innocence, saying he didn't know the abuse was happening. Pope Francis has backed him, and has refused to allow Barros to step down from his post, though the bishop has submitted a letter of resignation multiple times.
Francis' decision to send 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 Barros issue, saying the accusations were “calumny,” because there was no proof.
The comment prompted uproar from Barros' 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 advisors and head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to release a statement saying the words were painful to victims.
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In a conversation with journalists on the way back to Rome, Pope Francis apologized, but said there was no evidence condemning Barros, and that so far, no victims had come forward.
However, less than one week after the decision to send 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 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 Barros accusations, Scicluna stopped in New York to interview Cruz. He then went to Santiago to interview additional witnesses related to the Barros case.
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 Barros, Scicluna also met with alleged victims of abuse by the Marist Brothers, a move which seemingly broadened the scope of his mandate in the country.