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Learning the Lessons of Chile

Note: One week until our 10th anniversary! If you still need convincing, click on my letter here. But really, you don’t want to miss this chance to be part of helping The Catholic Thing keep going for another ten years, do you? – Robert Royal

The surprise announcement by all the bishops of Chile of their submissions of resignations to Pope Francis is a stunning development. I did live television commentary for the Brooklyn Diocese’s NET TV of Pope Francis’ January apostolic voyage to Chile and Peru. At that time, we discussed, at length, the pope’s strong rebuke of people who accused Bishop Juan Barros of having enabled the sexual abuse of minors by his friend and mentor Fr. Fernando Karadima.

Five months later, the entire Chilean Bishops’ Conference, after a three-day meeting in Rome with Pope Francis, concluded that their collective departure would please him, and would allow him the greatest freedom to rebuild the confidence of Chilean Catholics by installing new bishops throughout the country. How did we arrive at this point?

At the press conference announcing the mass resignation, Bishop Fernando Reyes, the Secretary General of the Chilean Episcopal Conference, said:

In this context of dialogue and discernment, various suggestions were presented as to how to deal with this great crisis, and furthermore the idea developed that, in order to be more in tune with the will of the Holy Father, it was appropriate to declare our absolute readiness to place our pastoral charges in the hands of the pope. In this way, we were able to make a collegial gesture of solidarity to take responsibility – not without sorrow – for the grave things that occurred, and so that the Holy Father could freely decide how to proceed regarding all of us.

The Chilean bishops seem to have thought that the pope wanted their resignations. This turn of events was unthinkable back in January. What happened? Outrage by victims of sexual abuse and by ordinary Catholics exploded in Chile, combined with persistent media coverage of this conflict.

The pope took to heart the vehement reactions to his dismissive comments. He sent two outside investigators to Chile to gather evidence and report back. Then he called the Chilean hierarchy to Rome.

He then laid out the evidence gathered by his investigators in a letter (later leaked to the press) given to the Chilean bishops when they arrived in Rome. The manifest wrongdoing cited by the pope rings true, given similar experiences in other countries: destruction of evidence; transfer of accused priests without concern for the minors who would come under their influence; delaying tactics and superficial or non-existent investigations of complaints received, pressure put upon those carrying out the canonical investigation of alleged crimes; and the placement by bishops and religious superiors of priests suspected of being active homosexuals in seminaries and novitiates.

The investigators, it’s no surprise, discovered this familiar pattern in Chile. The self-reporting to Rome by the Chilean hierarchy in these matters was gravely deficient and even deceptive.

Pope Francis with the Chilean bishops

The lesson here is clear: if the Holy See wants to root out the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, and also put an end to the associated cover-ups by senior clergy and bishops, then it must use the same means in other places that it used here. Vatican designated investigators with no ties to the local church under investigation should be sent to gather evidence when complaints of sexual abuse and cover-ups are received.

The self-policing and self-reporting system has been shown to be completely inadequate in the Chilean case. The effectiveness of canonical provisions governing the handling of accusations of sexual abuse of minors by priests depends on the full and vigorous cooperation of the local hierarchy. Absent that co-operation justice is not done. Such co-operation is often absent.

The sad reality is that the exposure of the crime of sexual abuse of minors and the widespread efforts by bishops and religious order superiors to hide the facts from the public was not the result of actions initiated by the Church herself. That exposure came by way of the police, the courts, and the media in various countries.

In the case of Chile, victims of sexual abuse only got a fair hearing in Rome by insisting on the truth of their claims in the face of both episcopal and papal rejection. Pope Francis decided to have another look at the matter and what he discovered is that he had not been given the complete story.

He should also review the record of the various Roman curial departments that were involved in monitoring the situation in Chile for the past thirty years. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found Fr. Karadima guilty in 2011 of the sexual abuse of minors. He was forbidden to exercise priestly ministry and commanded to lead a live of prayer and penance. He is reported to still claim his innocence. Was this enough?

By not removing him from the priesthood and returning him to the lay state, the gravity of his crimes was not sufficiently recognized. As in the case of Fr. Marcial Maciel, who also was not removed from priesthood despite his multiple and grave crimes, a life of prayer and penance becomes the functional equivalent of forced retirement and does not deprive the sexual predator of the state of life that allowed him to have easy access to his victims.

Removal from the priesthood unmistakably rebukes him for the grave offense he has given to Christ and to Christ’s little ones, and also clearly communicates to the whole world that the Church considers him to have completely forfeited his right to exercise the office of the priesthood that he so badly misused.

Roman action on Chile was necessary and purgative. The Church’s mission is to uphold the Gospel. That includes doing all that is possible to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. This is not vengeance. This is justice.

And now is the time to take a similar look at other countries where there remain similar questions about the proper handling of accusations of sexual abuse and cover-ups.

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.