Chile has Rome reckoning on clergy sex abuse

When all 34 bishops of Chile offered their resignations to Pope Francis on May 18, following a three-day meeting to discuss the clerical sexual abuse crisis in their country, observers in the United States were cautiously optimistic that the event marked a real change in the way abuse allegations are handled in the universal Church.

“It’s going to be a game-changer in Chile,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of, a website that tracks abuse allegations. “It might not be a game-changer for the universal Church. Will the reforms that are to be enacted be confined to Chile, or will they be enacted into canon law and spread throughout the Church?”

Fallout over Chile

The Chilean bishops announced that they had all written resignation letters at a press conference in Rome after the days of meetings. Those meetings were scheduled after Pope Francis sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and his aide, Father Jordi Bertomeu, to Chile to investigate the scandal. That investigation resulted in a 2,300-page report.

“The pope’s text clearly showed a series of absolutely reprehensible acts that have occurred in the Chilean Church in relation to those unacceptable abuses of power, of conscience and sexual abuse that have resulted in the lessening of the prophetic vigor that characterized her,” said Auxiliary Bishop Fernando Ramos Pérez of Santiago, secretary-general of the Chilean bishops’ conference, in a May 18 press conference, Catholic News Service reported.

The Church and Sexual Abuse Today
Chile is not the only flashpoint in the clergy sexual abuse crisis:

The bishops remain in office until Pope Francis decides whether or not to accept their resignations.

Pope Francis was criticized for failing to take the scandal seriously in 2015 when he appointed Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to lead the Diocese of Osorno. Bishop Barros was a protégé of Father Fernando Karadima, who in a 2011 Church trial was convicted of abusing dozens of minors starting in the 1980s and was sentenced to a life of prayer and penance. Some of his victims have testified that Bishop Barros even witnessed incidents of abuse.

The pope apologized for the scandal on a visit to Chile in January, but days later defended Bishop Barros, calling accusations that he allowed the abuse and did nothing “calumny.” That drew an unusually blunt response from Boston Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, who said the pope’s statements “were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.”

Cardinal O’Malley, who serves as the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has said that he delivered a letter written by Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Karadima’s victims, to Pope Francis in 2015.

Survivors weigh in

Cruz was one of three abuse survivors from Chile who met with Pope Francis at the end of April, staying at Domus Sanctae Marthae and meeting with the pope individually and together.

Cruz said the pope told him, “I was part of the problem.”

After the bishops’ resignations were announced, Cruz tweeted, “[Pope Francis] has changed the history of the Church and provided new hope to survivors of abuse worldwide!”

Mike Hoffman, who was abused by a priest when he was a minor, said that hearing leaders of the Church apologize was crucial to his healing.

Hoffman now volunteers with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s victim assistance ministry, and said retreats the ministry held for victims of clerical sexual abuse helped him come to terms with his own experience and to maintain his faith. Several bishops came to the retreats and offered their sincere apologies, he said.

“It starts with the bishops, and it starts with Rome,” Hoffman said. “Reconciliation can happen for survivors too.”

Treating the wound

A document in which Pope Francis gave his evaluation of the situation in Chile was leaked to a Chilean television station May 17, and its authenticity was later confirmed by the Associated Press. In it, Pope Francis said the removal of some Church leaders was necessary but would not be enough to address the crisis. The wound, he said, “has been treated until recently with a medicine that, far from healing, seems to have worsened its depth and pain.”

In the footnotes, the pope said Archbishop Scicluna’s report found that in some instances, bishops in Chile found abuse reports “implausible,” that Church officials placed “undue pressure” on those carrying out criminal investigations, and that Church officials had destroyed compromising documents.

Mary Jane Doerr, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth and formerly of the U.S. bishops’ child protection office, said that leaders often move first to protect their organizations when accusations of sexual abuse arise.

Doerr, who said she could speak directly only to the situation in the United States, noted that heads of two U.S. dioceses have resigned after failing to respond appropriately to abuse accusations. St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John C. Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee A. Piché resigned in June 2015 after county prosecutors brought criminal charges against the archdiocese. Two months earlier, Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, resigned after having been convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child abuse allegations.

Those resignations made clear that the three bishops were no longer able to serve as effective leaders, she said.

However, while the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People tells bishops how to handle abuse allegations, it does not really address what should happen to a bishop who does not handle them properly, Doerr said.

“The charter was written by bishops, for bishops,” said Doerr.

When sexual abuse crises emerge in other parts of the world, it can make the Church everywhere — including the United States — look bad, she said.

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“Most of the dioceses in the United States work very hard to prevent it,” she said. That means, among other things, not reacting in disbelief when there is an allegation. Instead, she said, “we want to know what happened and how it happened so we can stop it from happening again.”

Bishops’ conferences in other countries can learn from the experience of the Church in the United States, she said.

“If people look around, they can learn from each other,” she said.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.