Vatican City • The key whistleblower in Chile’s clerical sex abuse scandal has arrived in Rome for his audience with Pope Francis and said Tuesday he will urge the pope to get rid of the “toxic” bishops and cardinals who have defamed and discredited abuse survivors around the world.
In an interview in St. Peter’s Square, Juan Carlos Cruz said he was honored Francis wants to apologize in person for having himself discredited victims during a January trip to Chile. Francis’ strong defense of a bishop now at the heart of Chile’s scandal has been one of the worst blunders of his papacy, calling into question his commitment to fighting abuse and cover-ups.
While Francis has blamed others for misinforming him, Cruz said he wants to hear the pope’s explanation for having seemingly been unaware that abuse victims, and not anti-church political activists, had for years publicly accused Bishop Juan Barros of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.
“He’s not a pope from Ukraine. He’s from Buenos Aires, which is an hour, 40-[minute] flight” from Chile, Cruz told The Associated Press. “So it’s really difficult to understand that this was an unknown. But I want to hear him. I want to talk to him. I want to listen to what he has to say.”
Cruz and two other abuse survivors, Jimmy Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo, have several days of private and group meetings with Francis lined up starting Friday. They will be Francis’ guests at the Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel, where he lives.
The VIP treatment the three are being given by the Vatican is a remarkable turnabout, given how Chile’s church leaders have treated them like pariahs for years.
Francis invited the three to Rome after enraging Chileans by saying during his January visit that the men’s accusations against Barros were “calumny” and demanding proof.
Francis seemed unaware that the men — victims of Barros’ mentor, the Rev. Fernando Karadima — had placed Barros at the scene of their abuse and that their testimony had been deemed trustworthy enough for the Vatican to use it to sentence Karadima to a lifetime of penance and prayer. Francis had previously accused “leftists” for mounting the opposition to Barros.
In response to the uproar his comments caused in Chile, Francis dispatched the Vatican’s top sex abuse investigator to look into the accusations against Barros. After receiving the investigator’s report, Francis issued a letter of apology to the victims and invited them to Rome.
The pope also gave a stern warning to Chile’s bishops, who have a history of discrediting victims, imposing minimal sentences on abusers or covering up for them entirely.
In the letter, Francis admitted he made “serious errors in judgment and perception” about the Barros case, but he blamed a lack of “truthful and balanced information” for his missteps.
Many Chileans have pointed the finger at the retired archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Javier Errazuriz, who was Barros’ superior for many years and is a top adviser of Francis.
In emails, Errazuriz referred to Cruz as a “liar” and a “serpent” out to destroy the Chilean church. Barros, Hamilton and Murillo sued the archdiocese for having covered up Karadima’s abuse; their case is on appeal.
Cruz has urged Francis to remove “toxic” leaders like Errazuriz, who also is in Rome this week attending one of Francis’ regular meetings with his nine key cardinal advisers.
“I believe [Francis] is a good man, and I believe he wants to do the right thing,” Cruz said. “Unfortunately he has listened to toxic people that surround him and that has to stop. … They need to go. He needs to hold them accountable.”
With a few days to go before he meets with Francis, Cruz has been in the care of the Rev. Jordi Bertomeu, who went to Chile to interview abuse victims along with top investigator Archbishop Charles Scicluna.
“It’s still absolutely surreal that I’m here in front of St. Peter’s, I’m going to meet with the pope, when for years and years and years, I have been the most evil person in the world to them,” Cruz marveled.
“I wish they did that with every survivor, though.”