At the end of May, Pope Francis delivered a letter he had promised to the faithful of Chile, as part of his response to the burgeoning crisis of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up in their country. There was probably no letter that Pope Francis could have written which would have been adequate under the circumstances. Nevertheless, two failures of the one he did send last week were unnecessary and particularly unhelpful: his insistence on hackneyed language, and his continued evasion of full responsibility.
A letter to the faithful of Chile was a sensible thing to promise and deliver. Pope Francis cannot fix the crisis in Chile or the worldwide Church on his own, and he is very short on trustworthy advisers and capable ministers. He also needs to resist the temptation to rash action taken in order to be seen doing something. Such a letter was never going to accomplish anything in the way of real reform, but it might have given some sign the Pope appreciates the severity and gravity of the crisis.
Instead, the letter to the Chilean faithful reads as a sort of defense — an apologia, rather than an apology. It is as if the author is begging his readers to see what a decent fellow he is beneath it all, even if he has made some painful missteps of late, and show how very earnestly he wants to get it right this time, with their help:
With you, we can take the necessary steps for a healthy and lasting renewal and ecclesial conversion. With you, the necessary transformation can be generated, which is much needed [sic]. Without you, nothing can be done. I urge all the Holy Faithful People of God who live in Chile to not be afraid of getting involved, and to walk, driven by the Spirit, in search of a Church each day more synodal, prophetic and hopeful; less abusive, because she knows how to put Jesus at the center — in the hungry, in the prisoner, in the migrant, in the abused.
The faithful of Chile have been clamoring for action from the Church’s hierarchical leadership for years, even decades. While Francis has thanked the faithful for their tenacity — especially the victims he accused of calumny — and renewed his gratitude to them in this letter, the talk of being in it all together, and the protestations of helplessness without their involvement, has a tinny ring to it at best, especially given his apparent unwillingness to say what really happened and name his failures of leadership and governance specifically.
The lack of discipline those lines above betray — they are the closing lines of his missive — is disappointing and frankly telling. Though he is certainly right to tell us — every time he does — of our duty to every person who is hungry, every prisoner, and every migrant, it is nevertheless also true that “the hungry”, “the prisoner”, and “the migrant” are among his most frequent subjects of address, along with “prophetic witness” and especially “synodality”. Pope Francis could not apologize for miscarrying in his duty to an entire people, without hitting his favorite talking points. They ought to be the focus of our zeal: here, they are his tropes, with “abuse victims” tossed in at the end.
“Nunca más!” Pope Francis had declared earlier in his letter, writing to the pilgrim people of God in Chile:
The “Never again!” to the culture of abuse, as well as to the system of concealment that allows it to perpetuate itself, requires working together to generate a culture of care that permeates our ways of relating, praying, thinking, living authority; our customs and modes of speaking [orig. lenguajes], and our relationship with power and money. Today we know that the best word that we can give to deal with the pain caused is the commitment to personal, community and social conversion, which learns to listen and take care especially of the most vulnerable.
Never again. That is what we heard after the hierarchical leadership of the Church in Ireland imploded under the weight of its own scandalous conduct. That is what we heard after Pope St. John Paul II summoned the US bishops to Rome for a reckoning when it got out they had betrayed the trust of the faithful in their country. One has warrant at this point to doubt whether the bishops — Pope Francis included — really understand what it means, and if they do understand it, whether really mean it.
More to this: the commitment to personal, community, and social conversion, which Pope Francis proposes as a solution to the crisis, is what the Church calls all of us to seek prayerfully, every day. It is what Christians do. Bishops are Christians, and the Pope is a bishop. What is he doing? What are they going to do? Reminding the faithful that we’re all in this together is perhaps necessary, hard as it is, but such a reminder can only come effectively if it is preceded by credible attestations from ecclesiastical leadership — starting with Pope Francis — recognizing their faults, acknowledging their guilt, and committing to repair of the damage they have wrought.
On each of those last three points, the Holy Father’s letter to the faithful of Chile is insufficient.
“[O]ne of our main faults and omissions,” was, according to Pope Francis, “[not] knowing how to listen to the victims. Thus, partial conclusions were drawn that lacked crucial elements for a healthy and clear discernment.” He went on to say, “With shame, I must say that I did not know how to listen and react in time.” The clerical leadership of the Church in Chile had listened and heard the victims, though. They knew too well what problem they had on their hands.
The statement, “Conclusions were drawn,” raises the question: by whom were they drawn? The answer is: by Pope Francis. Pope Francis drew conclusions based on what he’d learned from men who listened to the victims of clerical sexual abuse very carefully, indeed, and heard them loud and clear — the same men, who are credibly alleged to have responded with conduct that was at the very least morally bankrupt.
Pope Francis, meanwhile, distrusted the witness of men the Vatican’s own criminal court had believed when they gave evidence against Chile’s most well-known abuser-priest, the disgraced 87-year-old Fr. Fernando Karadima, found guilty by a Vatican tribunal and sentenced to a life of prayer and penance in 2011.
One of Karadima’s victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, wrote a letter to Pope Francis, which the Holy Father’s own hand-picked head of the Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, supposedly delivered to the Pope in person in 2015. That letter detailed the abuse Mr. Cruz suffered, and rehearsed many of the allegations against several of the men Pope Francis trusted over and against Mr. Cruz and his fellows. Pope Francis denied he had evidence of the misdeeds to which Mr. Cruz’s letter attested, years after he should have received it. He also stated that no victims had ever come to him, also years after he should have taken delivery of Mr. Cruz’s missive.
Cardinal O’Malley has confirmed — albeit through his secretary for communications and public affairs, Terrence Donilon — that he did deliver the letter. Even if the Pope for some reason never got the letter, Mr. Cruz’s story and others had nevertheless been before the public for years. Pope Francis’s problem was not inadequate information, however incomplete the picture might have been. Pope Francis chose to believe bishops over victims. That is a very different thing.
If Pope Francis’s failures contributed to the crisis, his leadership may yet be the thing that begins to stabilize the wounds and repair the damage, even if the necessary real and deep healing of the injuries the Church’s clerical overseers have inflicted on her body and soul will take at least a generation. He needs to get this right: to do that, he needs to trust the people of God with the whole, unvarnished truth; and he needs to get out of his own way. The window of opportunity, however, is closing rapidly.