Vatican City • Chile’s Catholic bishops said Monday they were open to whatever Pope Francis proposes to overhaul the Chilean church, including the removal of bishops, reforms of seminaries and paying financial reparation to victims of a clergy sex abuse and cover-up scandal.
Representatives of the Chilean bishops conference told reporters they were heading into three days of meetings with Francis humbled, pained and shamed for their own errors in handling abuse cases. They said they wanted to listen to Francis and would follow his lead in asking forgiveness of the victims they had discredited.
A conference spokesman, Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez, said “it’s possible” some bishops would offer to resign, but that it was up to the pope. “We’ll respect what he says. If he asks, we’ll do it.”
Francis summoned the bishops to Rome for an emergency summit after receiving a 2,300-page report on the abuse cover-up scandal, which he had helped fuel. During a visit to Chile in January, Francis strongly defended a bishop, Juan Barros, who was accused by victims of Chile’s most notorious predator priest of having witnessed and ignored their abuse.
Francis acknowledged he made “grave errors of judgment” in the case and blamed a “lack of truthful and balanced information” for his missteps.
Chile’s bishops have insisted they provided Francis with correct information, and they declined Monday to go into detail about who knew what and when.
Gonzalez, the conference spokesman, was among Barros’ strong defenders. He said as recently as January that the accusations against Barros were politically motivated and devoid of proof.
On Monday, Gonzalez said he stood by Barros because his “brother felt hurt, alone, a bit abandoned,” and that any good Catholic would have done the same.
Victims of the Rev. Fernando Karadima have described the pain and anguish they felt over the support afforded Barros, whom they placed at the scene of their abuse.
Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops are widely expected to resign. But the scandal has tainted other bishops, including one of Francis’ top advisers, the retired archbishop of Santiago.
Gonzalez and the secretary general of the conference, Bishop Fernando Ramos, said it was clear that changes were necessary in the Chilean church. They said the seminary training Chilean priests receive needs to include courses on child protection.
They also didn’t rule out financial reparations for victims. Karadima’s main victims were publicly humiliated by Santiago’s church leaders after they sued the archdiocese for alleged cover-up. After a court ruled against them, the victims are appealing.
The key unanswered question about the scandal remains why Francis appointed Barros bishop of Osorno in 2015 despite objections from some Chilean church leaders who feared continued fallout from the Karadima affair.
They had proposed having Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops resign in 2014 and take a year sabbatical. Francis overruled them, presumably acting on other advice.
One critical behind-the-scenes player is a Spanish Jesuit known to be close to Francis, the Rev. German Arana. He hosted Barros during a spiritual retreat in 2014 and is believed to have given Francis a positive readout.
Arana accompanied Barros during his protest-marred 2015 installation in Osorno and was seen arriving with him in Rome this weekend ahead of this week’s meetings.
Chile’s La Tercera revealed on Monday that a group of Osorno Jesuits wrote their superior a letter in 2016 expressing dismay at the role Arana had played in the affair, saying “We think it isn’t right and doesn’t look good for someone from outside the diocese to get mixed up in local church issues that he doesn’t know.”
Asked Monday if Chile’s bishops felt betrayed by Francis for having disregarded their own recommendations about Barros, Ramos said he didn’t know all the details of what went into the original appointment. But he stressed: “We never felt betrayed by the pope.”