Santiago, Chile • The Vatican’s leading expert on clerical sex abuse wrapped up his fact-finding mission to Chile on Thursday and headed to Rome to brief the pope, concluding one of the most extraordinary months in the Catholic Church’s long-running saga of coming to terms with priests who rape children and the church hierarchy that protects them.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna plans to present not only a report about Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of witnessing their abuse and ignoring it. Scicluna is also bringing back testimony from Chilean victims of other abusers in the Marist Brothers, Salesian and Franciscan religious orders and how their accusations were mishandled, confirmation that the Chilean Catholic Church has a very big problem on its hands, and to date hasn’t handled it very well.
“In those situations that seem pertinent, Monsignor Scicluna will provide the respective background to the Holy See,” said the spokesman for the Chilean bishops’ conference, Jaime Coiro.
Expectations in Chile are high that something has to change, and that the problem isn’t just about Barros and Francis’ 2015 decision to appoint him as bishop of Osorno, Chile, over the objections of many Chilean bishops. Barros had been a top lieutenant to Chile’s most prominent predator priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, but he denies victims’ accusations that he witnessed and ignored their abuse.
Victims say the Barros affair is merely emblematic of a culture in the Chilean church to cover-up for abusers, give them minimal sanctions or move them around rather than adopt the “one-strike-and-you’re-out” policy adopted by U.S. bishops after the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002.
There are five Chilean dioceses that need new bishops, including Santiago, where the archbishop, Cardinal Riccardo Ezzati, turned 76 in January and is due to retire. That sets the stage for the potential that a new course could be charted in Chile if Francis chooses to take it.
“This isn’t just about Bishop Barros. This is much bigger,” historian and author Marcial Sanchez told CNN Chile on Thursday. “We can’t continue sweeping the dirt under the carpet.”
Pope Francis dispatched Scicluna and a Vatican expert on abuse in the region, the Rev. Jordi Bertomeu, to Chile on Jan. 30 following Francis’ problematic visit to Chile and even more problematic press conference coming home. Francis had strongly defended Barros, pronounced himself “certain” that Barros was innocent of cover-up and repeatedly said that accusations against him were “calumny.”
Francis gave the impression that he didn’t know that victims themselves had placed Barros at the scene of their abuse and had been denouncing him for years. The Associated Press, however, reported that Francis had received a letter in 2015 from Juan Carlos Cruz, a Karadima victim, detailing his abuse, Barros’ failure to acknowledge it, and questioning Barros’ fitness to lead a diocese as a result.
Francis’ about-face decision to send in Scicluna, the Catholic Church’s most credible figure on fighting abuse, signaled he wanted to get to the bottom of the Barros affair once and for all. But Scicluna’s decision to take testimony from other Chilean victims — made possible thanks to emergency gall bladder surgery that forced him to stay in Chile for an extra week — signaled that there was a bigger problem at hand and that his mandate was expanding.
Cruz said the fact that Scicluna and Bertomeu chose to interview victims completely unrelated to the Barros case “shows that this goes way beyond Juan Barros.”
“I think that if the pope doesn’t do anything, and focuses only on Barros, it will not go over well since the Chilean church needs an extreme cleansing,” he said.
Anne Barrett Doyle, of the online abuse database BishopAccountability.org, had actually illustrated the problem facing the Chilean church on the eve of Francis’ Jan. 15-21 trip to Chile and Peru. She and other survivors’ advocates held a press conference in Santiago to unveil research showing nearly 80 credibly accused priests and brothers in Chile, many of them even superiors of religious orders.
One month later, Barrett Doyle said it was “encouraging” that Scicluna had come and had even expanded his mandate to take testimony from other victims. But she said time will tell if Francis and the Vatican act on Scicluna’s findings. She said the bigger problem was the Chilean hierarchy and its approach to investigating abuse, which she said remained “in the dark ages.”
“The Chilean church desperately needs systemic reform,” she said.
She noted that the Chilean church’s 2015 sex abuse policy — mandated by the Vatican in 2011 — “contains no zero tolerance provision, no mandated reporting for clergy, and a rejection of the church’s responsibility to make reparation to victims.”
In fact, efforts by Karadima’s victims to obtain damages from the church through civil litigation accusing church leaders of cover-up have been met with a campaign to discredit the victims. And yet elsewhere, dioceses in the U.S. have paid out millions of dollars in settlements and litigation acknowledging wrongdoing. Dioceses in Europe and Australia have created compensation schemes to help victims pay for the therapy many have needed to cope with the lifelong trauma the church had caused them.
A lawsuit seeking less than a million dollars, lodged by Cruz and two other Karadima victims, was rejected by Chilean courts but is on appeal.
Scicluna and Bertolomeu will return to Rome just days after Francis wrapped up his latest periodic meeting of cardinal advisers, who discussed ways to speed up the processing of cases at the Vatican’s backlogged Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One proposal that has been discussed for years is to create regional tribunals around the world to hear cases.
One of Francis’ key cardinal advisers, who spent three days with him this week in private, was Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, who has acknowledged he shelved the initial investigation into Karadima because he didn’t believe the victims.