Meeting abuse survivors, Pope apologizes for being 'part of the problem'

Pope Francis at the general audience in St Peters Square on January 31 2018 Credit Daniel Ibanez 1 CNA Pope Francis in January 2018. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

After meeting with Pope Francis over the weekend, Chilean survivors of clerical sexual abuse said the pontiff was open, sympathetic and deeply impacted by the situation, at one point voicing sorrow for having been "part of the problem."

Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of Chilean abuser Fr. Fernando Karadima who met with Pope Francis privately Saturday, said he spoke to the pontiff for at least three hours, and found him "sincere, attentive and deeply apologetic for the situation."

"For me, the pope was contrite, he was truly sorry," Cruz said. "I felt also that he was hurting, which for me was very solemn, because it's not often that the pope says sorry to you...he said, 'I was part of the problem, I caused this and I apologize.'"

Cruz was joined by fellow abuse survivors James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo, each of whom suffered abuse at the hands Chilean priest Fernando Karadima, who in 2011 was found guilty by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of sexually abusing several minors during the 1980s and 1990s, and subsequently sentenced to a life of prayer and solitude.

Chilean civil authorities investigated Karadima but ultimately dropped charges since his crimes were beyond the statute of limitations.

Hamilton, Cruz and Murillo were invited to come to the Vatican after the pope received a 2,300-page report from Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, highly regarded as the Vatican's top abuse investigator, who had traveled to the United States and Chile in February to investigate allegations of cover-up in the Chile case.

Initially the investigation centered on Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, who was appointed to the diocese in 2015 and who has been accused by Cruz and several others of not only covering up Karadima's abuses, but at times also participating.

Allegations were also made against three other bishops – Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic and Horacio Valenzuela – whom Karadima's victims accuse of also covering the abuser's crimes.

While on the ground, Scicluna interviewed some 64 people, most of whom were victims, but the scale of the investigation went beyond Barros. The final report is said to be much more extensive, including details from other cases.

Pope Francis had previous defended Bishop Barros, saying he had received no evidence of the bishop's guilt, and called accusations against him "calumny" during a trip to Chile in January. However, just days after he made the comments, news broke that Cruz in 2015 had sent the pope an 8-page letter through the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors with his testimony detailing Barros' presence and involvement in the abuse.

After receiving Archbishop Scicluna's report, Francis issued a major "mea culpa" April 11, saying he had made "serious errors in the judgment and perception of the situation, especially due to a lack of truthful and balanced information."

He invited Cruz, Hamilton and Murillo to meet with him privately at the Vatican, and summoned all of Chile's 32 bishops to Rome in the third week of May, where they will discuss the conclusions of Scicluna's report as well the pope's own conclusions on the matter.

Each of the three men met with Pope Francis individually with no time limit over the weekend, and then again as a group on Monday.

In a joint statement issued May 2, the survivors said they have been treated as "enemies" of the Church for nearly 10 years for their outspoken criticism of abuse and cover-up in the Church, but that this weekend's meetings allowed them to meet "the friendly face of the Church, completely different form the one we had seen before."

Pope Francis, they said, asked for forgiveness in his name and on behalf of the entire universal Church.

"We were able to speak frankly and respectfully with the pope," they said, explaining that major themes brought up included not only sexual abuse, but also cover-up and abuse of power, which they said are not isolated to Chile, but are "an epidemic" that has affected thousands of people throughout the global Church.

Despite their abuse, the survivors said they have met many priests and men and women religious who are fighting for justice, and called them "courageous" people who have made progress in the fight against abuse and cover-up.

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Pope Francis, they said, was "very attentive, receptive and very empathetic during the intense and long hours of conversation."

During the audiences, the pope also asked the men for their opinion on both "specific and theoretical" aspects of the issue, and asked to stay in touch with them to hear their thoughts and recommendations for the future.

The victims also called for action, saying that the Church "has the duty to become an ally and a guide in the global fight against abuse, and a refuge for the victims," something that they said is not sufficiently happening today.

"We hope that Pope Francis transforms his loving words of forgiveness into exemplary actions. Otherwise, all this will be in vain."

In comments to the press during a May 2 news briefing on their meetings, the survivors unanimously said they believed the pope had been grossly misinformed about the situation by those around him, and was truly repentant for the mistakes he made.

Cruz said he didn't ask about whether Francis had read his letter from 2015, but said he was able to communicate everything he had wanted during their face-to-face meeting.

"We spoke very frankly and very directly," he said, adding that "it was clear that the pope was misinformed."

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Cruz said he told the pope that "it hurt tremendously" when he said their accusations against Barros were "calumny," and told him to watch out for "these toxic people that surround him."

In his comments to the press, Hamilton pinned a large part of the blame on Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, nuncio to Chile since 2011, and Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, Archbishop Emeritus of Santiago and a member of Pope Francis' council of cardinal advisors.

Hamilton said that Errazuriz failed to act upon the abuse reports he raised, despite being told by the Chilean Promoter of Justice that they were credible and should be followed up with canonical prosecution.

"So Cardinal Errazuriz was covering up for more than 5 years the criminal of Karadima and all of his acts," Hamilton said.

After their conversations, Hamilton said he believes Francis is now well informed on the situation, which is why he asked for the visit. "Everybody deserves a second chance, especially in this case," he said.

However, all three men stressed the importance of following up with action after the meetings.

Murillo told journalists that he does not see the trip as "a triumph," but rather as "a step further in a process."

"Even if we saw the forgiveness that Pope Francis asked of us," he said, "we are waiting for actions. We are not here for public relations, we are here for actions."

He described the trip as long and tiring, "because I constantly work with children who were victims of abuse [and] during this trip I thought of them, but not only – I thought of all minors and adolescents who suffer abuse...also from professors, at home, in athletic training...I continue to think of all of them and I have to say, I am truly tired."

Murillo said he hopes to that legal action will be taken against the bishops guilty of cover-up in the Chile case.

"I hope the governments of the rest of the world begin to think first of the that these events don't repeat themselves."

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