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The Pope has said he was ‘part of the problem’ on abuse. Here’s how he can change that

Chilean clerical sex abuse survivors Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo at a press conference on Wednesday after meeting the Pope last weekend (CNS)

Pope Francis is master of the grand gesture and of the personal encounter. Again and again we have seen his ability to touch and kindle hearts – not least last weekend, when he met Chilean abuse survivors including Juan Carlos Cruz. “He said he was part of the problem,” Cruz told journalists at Wednesday’s press conference. Cruz, along with James Hamilton and José Andres Murillo, welcomed Pope Francis’s apology and said they had “met the friendly face of the Church, completely different from the one we have seen before.”

What matters now is action. The Pope has also shown great willingness to use the power of his office where and when he has seen fit. The question is not whether he can govern, but whether he is willing – and the Chile scandal is a major test. “We hope,” the statement prepared by Cruz, Hamilton and Murillo read, “that Pope Francis transforms his loving words of forgiveness into exemplary actions. Otherwise, all this will be in vain.”

The three men were sexually abused by Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious paedophile priest. The survivors have also accused Bishop Juan Barros – one of Karadima’s protégés and the current bishop of Osorno, Chile – of turning a blind eye to the abuse they suffered at his mentor’s hands. In his January trip to Chile, Pope Francis repeatedly dismissed the survivors’ allegations against Bishop Barros as “calumny” and said he had seen no evidence for their claims.

But then the Associated Press revealed that Cruz had written to the Pope in 2014 detailing the allegations – and that Cardinal Seán O’Malley, head of the child protection commission, had promised to hand-deliver it to the Pope. Cue a media storm which led to a Vatican investigation of the Chilean case, and to last weekend’s meeting. In short, what began with rumblings about the mishandling of one Chilean case has now brought the Holy Father’s entire record of leadership in the fight against clerical sexual abuse under intense scrutiny.

So, this is a personal test for Francis, and the window of opportunity for him to show his bona fides is not getting any wider. There is one radical step he could take: to put Cruz himself on the Vatican’s child protection commission. That’s what Marie Collins, herself an abuse survivor and a former member of the commission, suggested in response to email inquiries from the Catholic Herald. “The Pope should appoint him to his Commission for the Protection of Minors or failing that appoint him a member of the new International Survivor Advisory Panel (ISAP) which is being set up to work with the Commission in advising the Pope,” Collins wrote. “Mr Cruz is in an excellent position to represent those survivors who have seen their cases mishandled and themselves mistreated by the Church. He knows first-hand the ongoing problems and what is needed to bring change.”

Collins also hopes the talks with survivors will lead the Pope to take tough action. “He must remove from office the church leaders who tried to destroy these men to protect their colleagues,” She said. “He must also take action to ensure a repetition of what happened in Chile does not occur elsewhere.”

Collins has reason to be skeptical of Vatican reform: a founding member of the child protection commission, she resigned last year in frustration at the lack of action. “So far none of the promises of change have come to pass,” she said yesterday. “There is no transparent accountability structure to deal with negligent bishops, mandatory reporting is still not part of church policy, survivors are still looked on by many local churches as at best an inconvenience and at worst, as we saw in Chile, an enemy to be destroyed.”

Some of those issues are thornier than others. Mandatory reporting is especially complicated and even fraught, especially in light of some civil jurisdictions’ attempts to use mandatory reporting laws to force open the seal of confession. There might have been a threat to the confessional seal anyway. But had bishops responded adequately to the abuse crisis, the Church would be engaging in that fight from a much stronger position.

Transparency is a major outstanding issue for Pope Francis. Cruz told reporters he did not ask the Pope Francis whether he had received the letter. So we are still not sure whether Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston failed to deliver the now infamous 2014 letter. We still don’t know whether the Pope failed to open it, or whether it was read and overlooked. One could even be reasonably uncertain whether the Pope ever really received the letter at all. If the question has been, “What did Pope Francis know, and when did he know it?” yesterday’s press conference did not shed any direct light on the answer.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis is preparing to receive – here in Rome later this month – the bishops of Chile, including Bishop Barros and Cardinals Ezzati and Errázuriz. Those last, respectively the Archbishop and Archbishop-emeritus of Santiago, face intense public scrutiny over whether they did enough to prevent the Chilean crisis. They both strenuously deny wrongdoing.

The question now is whether Pope Francis will govern the universal Church as though he really does finally understand how deep the filth and rot run, how truly pernicious are the evils to which a clerical culture of power can give rise.