Vatican City • Pope Francis opened several days of talks Friday with Chilean sex abuse survivors in what the Vatican said was a climate of “reparation for suffering” after the pontiff deeply wounded them by discrediting their claims of abuse cover-up by a bishop.
The three men — Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo — are staying at the Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel as guests of Francis. Their VIP treatment is evidence of the about-face that Francis has made after admitting he made “serious errors of judgment” in the case of Bishop Juan Barros.
Over the coming days, the men are to meet individually and collectively with the pope, though the Vatican said Friday there are no fixed schedules or pre-established agenda items.
In a statement, spokesman Greg Burke said Francis himself asked that the Vatican release no information about the content of the encounters because “his priority is to listen to the victims, ask their forgiveness and respect the confidentiality of these talks.”
“In this climate of confidence and reparation for suffering, Pope Francis’ desire is to let his guests speak for as long as necessary,” Burke said.
Francis shocked Chileans and deeply offended the three whistleblowers when, during his trip to Chile in January, he said their accusations against Barros were “calumny.” He demanded proof and said he was convinced Barros was innocent.
The three men were victims of Chile’s most notorious predator, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, and their testimony was instrumental in the Vatican’s decision to remove Karadima from ministry and sentence him in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer for his perversions.
Barros was one of Karadima’s proteges, and the men have said repeatedly that Barros witnessed and ignored their abuse, a claim Barros denies.
Francis sparked outrage in 2015, when he appointed Barros to head the diocese of Osorno, Chile, over the objections of some members of the Chilean bishops’ conference who were concerned about fallout from Karadima’s crimes. Many Catholic faithful and priests in Osorno have protested his appointment ever since.
Francis has said he overruled the bishops’ recommendation and rejected Barros’ resignation twice because he said he couldn’t in good faith remove him when he had no evidence of Barros’ wrongdoing. But as The Associated Press has reported, Francis had plenty of evidence, including a letter from Cruz hand-delivered by Francis’ top sex abuse adviser that detailed Barros’ wrongdoing and questioned his fitness to serve as a bishop.
Francis, however, disregarded it or didn’t believe it, swayed instead by other advisers. He has recently blamed a lack of “truthful and balanced information” for his own missteps.
After returning from Chile, where he was confronted with smaller-than-expected crowds and an unprecedented degree of protest, Francis sent the Vatican’s most respected sex crimes expert to do a proper investigation into the Barros affair.
The investigator’s 2,300-page report prompted Francis to issue a blistering letter to Chile’s bishops, summoning them to Rome in May and warning that they were in for short, medium and long-term changes.
He also apologized to the victims and invited them to Rome so he could ask their forgiveness in person. The Vatican has said he hopes to use the meetings to make a “fundamental step forward” in ridding the church of abuse.
Cruz, for his part, has said he will tell Francis he needs to first of all get rid of a handful of problematic bishops in Chile, Barros included, and then rid himself of the “toxic” churchmen who repeatedly discredit, demean and defame victims for the sake of protecting the church.
“I believe he [Francis] is a good man and I believe he wants to do the right thing,” Cruz told the AP earlier this week when he arrived in Rome. “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.”