The Chilean bishops are converging on Rome for an emergency meeting this week to which Pope Francis has summoned them in response to the explosion of the clerical sexual abuse crisis and related scandals in their country. Pope Francis is largely responsible for the explosion of the scandal — the crisis is another matter — having garnered international media attention and intense criticism when he accused Chilean sex abuse victims of calumny and then doubled down on his accusation before relenting, ordering an investigation, and eventually recanting.
If all that leads to a real address and remedy of the situation in Chile and the worldwide Church, it may prove to have been to the good. Nevertheless, he was, in his own estimation, “part of the problem,” according to witnesses who heard him say it.
In the letter he wrote to the bishops of Chile in April, after reading a 2300-page dossier from his special investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, Pope Francis wrote, “I believe I can affirm that the collected testimonies speak in a stark way, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives and I confess to you that that causes me pain and shame.” He went on in the letter to say, “As for my own responsibility, I acknowledge, and I want you to faithfully convey it that way, that I have made serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of the situation, especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information.”
There is a great deal about the situation in Chile that we do not know. Based on what we do know, it is difficult to understand precisely what Pope Francis means by, “the lack of truthful and balanced information.”
There was a letter from Juan Carlos Cruz (one of the victims Francis had accused of calumny) rehearsing in gruesome detail his abuser’s predations and the role he alleges bishop Juan Barros played in their coverup. (Barros is at the center of the scandal that is proximate cause of the investigation and the upcoming meeting, after Pope Francis put Barros on the See of Osorno in 2015 despite the objections of clergy and laity in the diocese.)
The President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, is supposed to have delivered the letter to the Holy Father in person. Did he? If he did, it is difficult to understand how Pope Francis can say he “lacked truthful and balanced information.” Cardinal O’Malley’s spokesman has confirmed delivering the letter. And Pope Francis has not denied receiving it.
If Pope Francis did receive the letter, but did not read it, he needs to explain why he did not. If he received it and read it, but decided not to credit or otherwise heed the contents of it, that simply is not a state of affairs for which “[lack of] truthful and balanced information,” is an adequate description. It is one thing not to have information. It is quite another to have it, and disregard it.
What happened to the letter from Cruz is as important an outstanding question as what — if anything — the Pope did with it. Those questions, however, are not crucial to understanding that the Pope’s handling of this whole matter has been gravely inadequate. His failures of leadership, moreover, may not necessarily be attributable to want of information.
Pope Francis also apparently knew of the accusations against Barros and of the grounds on which clergy and faithful in Osorno and throughout the country objected to his appointment. The Pope wrote to the bishops of Chile in 2015, in response to a letter from them in which they explained their reasons for believing it best that Barros should not be seated. In his reply, the Holy Father said that he understood the bishops’ concerns and was aware — in January, 2015 — of the difficult situation of the Church in Chile, as well as of “all the trials [the Church] has had to undergo.”
While he might now protest to the effect that he thought he was well informed at the time, but really was not, the information he did have in January 2015 was enough to raise doubts regarding the opportunity of seating Barros in Osorno or anywhere. In fact, the Holy Father was convinced it would be best that Barros (and the other bishops in positions of responsibility, who had been protégés of their country’s most notorious pedophile cleric) take a year’s sabbatical — often church-speak for early and quiet retirement. The letter to the Chilean bishops — obtained by the AP and dated Jan 31, 2015, reads:
I well remember your visit in February of last year and all the different proposals which I thought were prudent and constructive.
However, a serious problem came up at the end of the year. The Nuncio [Archbishop Ivo Scapolo] asked Bishop Barros to resign and encouraged him to take a sabbatical (for perhaps a year) before assuming any other responsibilities as a [diocesan] bishop. And he told him the same course of action would be taken with the bishops of Talca and Linares, but that nothing should be said to them. Bishop Barros wrote a resignation letter adding [or including – Spanish añadiendo] the Nuncio’s comment.
As you can comprehend, the Nuncio’s comment complicated and blocked any eventual path to offering a year’s sabbatical.
Why Barros’s mention of the Nuncio’s remark should have torpedoed the plan for a quiet sail into the sunset is not at all clear to anyone not in the know, and may not really be any clearer to those who are. In any case, it is more than extremely difficult to see how putting Barros in a diocese should have been any sort of solution. Still, that is what happened, and here we are.
Frank admission of specific failures of governance will be necessary if the Pope wants to have a chance — as he says he does — at being part of the solution to the problem. Transparency will be equally important. Said bluntly, Pope Francis cannot be a credible leader on this issue unless he tells the whole story and tells it straight, even and especially when it will be painful to do so.