Pope to beg for forgiveness from Chilean abuse victims
Pope Francis has admitted he made "grave errors" in judgment in Chile's sex abuse scandal.
He has invited the victims he had discredited to Rome to beg for their forgiveness.
In an extraordinary public letter, the Pope also summoned all Chile's bishops to the Vatican for an emergency meeting to discuss repairing the damage from the scandal, which has badly tarnished his reputation and that of the Chilean church.
The Vatican orders such emergency visits only on rare occasions, as when American bishops were summoned in 2002 after the clerical sex abuse scandal exploded in the US, and in 2010 when Irish bishops received a comprehensive Vatican dressing-down for their botched handling of abuse cases.
Pope Francis blamed a lack of "truthful and balanced information" for misjudging the case of Bishop Juan Barros, a protege of Chile's most notorious predator priest, Rev Fernando Karadima. The Pope strongly defended the bishop during his January visit to Chile, despite accusations by victims that Barros had witnessed and ignored their abuse.
Pope Francis accused the victims of "calumny" for pressing their case against Barros, demanded they present "proof" of their claims and revealed he twice rejected Barros's resignation. "I am convinced he is innocent," the Pope insisted.
After causing an outcry, the Pope sent the Vatican's most respected sex abuse investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to look into the scandal.
While his letter did not reveal his conclusions about Barros, Pope Francis made clear he and the bishops have a lot of work to do to turn the Chilean church around.
In words that laid bare his simmering anger, Francis said they must "re-establish confidence in the church, confidence that was broken by our errors and sins, and heal the wounds that continue to bleed in Chilean society."
But the Chilean bishops insisted they had been truthful to Francis about the need to get rid of Barros - they had proposed he resign and take a year's sabbatical - and victims' advocates said the Pope had only himself to blame, since the accusations against Barros were well-known and well-founded.
Karadima was a charismatic preacher who was removed from ministry by the Vatican for sexually abusing minors and sentenced in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer. He had long been a darling of the Chilean hierarchy, and his victims have accused church leaders of covering up his crimes to protect the church's reputation.
Archbishop Scicluna and his colleague, the Rev Jordi Bertomeu, spent nearly two weeks in Chile and New York earlier this year interviewing Karadima's victims, who for years have denounced Barros's silence and were stunned by Pope Francis's strong defence of him.
In his letter, the Pope thanked the 64 people who testified and had the courage to bare the "wounds of their souls" for the sake of truth. After reading the 2,300-page dossier his envoys prepared, Francis affirmed the victims "spoke in a stark way, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives."
"I confess this caused me pain and shame," he wrote. "For my part, I recognise - and so I want it to be faithfully transmitted - that I have fallen in grave errors of judgment and perception of the situation, especially due to the lack of truthful and balanced information. From now on, I ask forgiveness of all those I offended and I hope to be able to do it personally in the coming weeks."
Barros' three main accusers said they appreciated the Pope's request for forgiveness and were weighing his invitation. They said they would continue fighting for reparation and forgiveness "until zero tolerance about abuse and cover-up in the church becomes a reality".