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Pope Francis needs to be transparent in his meetings with the Chilean bishops

Pope Francis prays during his weekly general audience (Getty Images)

The bishops of Chile are in Rome this week for emergency meetings with Pope Francis, who wants to address the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up in their country. Thirty-one of Chile’s sitting bishops will participate, along with a handful of retired prelates — virtually the country’s entire episcopate. In a surprise development, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, Archbishop-emeritus of Santiago de Chile, decided to board a plane and fly to Rome to participate in the gathering, which opens on Tuesday and is scheduled to run through to Thursday.

Cardinal Errázuriz is very much at the centre of the controversy surrounding the crisis. He is accused, by victims a Vatican criminal court has deemed credible in a related matter, of providing cover for Fr Fernando Karadima, who was once a prominent celebrity priest in Chile, found guilty at trial in the Vatican in 2010. Karadima’s conviction came largely on the strength of the testimony of the men who also say Errázuriz covered up Karadima’s abuse.

Last week, Cardinal Errázuriz let it be known he would not be joining his brother bishops for the meetings, saying he’d just been to Rome to see the Pope and, “already given my contribution,” in the form of a 14-page report on the Barros Affair, which is the proximate cause of the scandal that has led to the upcoming sessions. He also said he couldn’t get a room in Santa Marta (the Vatican guest residence where Pope Francis lives and where many bishops stay when they’re in town).

Victims’ support groups and survivor-advocates in Chile and around the world expressed disappointment in the announcement, while news outlets including the Catholic Herald viewed the episode as a test of Francis’s resolve and wondered whether Pope Francis would let the prominent cardinal stay away. For whatever reason, Cardinal Errázuriz will be here. He told a reporter for La Tercera at Santiago’s international airport, “I thought I was not going, but at my age I can change my mind.”

Meanwhile, preparations for the three days of sessions here at the Vatican continue.

On Saturday, the Press Office of the Holy See released a statement explaining that the meetings would take place in secrecy, and that the Holy Father would be presenting the Chilean bishops with his conclusions on the basis of the 2300-page dossier his special investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, assembled during the course of his recent mission, but also that the Pope would not be making statements either during or after the sessions. “It is not foreseen that Pope Francis should make any declaration either during or after the meetings, which shall take place in absolute confidentiality,” the Saturday statement from the Press Office reads.

Whether the bishops of Chile will talk, as happened when representatives of the US bishops had a similar series of meetings in Rome in 2002, remains to be seen.

Survivor-advocates are not sanguine. Marie Collins, an Irish abuse victim who served on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors as a founding member before resigning in frustration at the commission’s toothlessness and the general lack of progress on the issues, said in a Twitter comment, “I hope whatever action the Pope takes against the Cardinals and bishops of Chile for their cover up it will be transparent.” She went on to say that letting malefactors quietly resign is insufficient. “Justice,” said Collins, “must be seen to be done.”

The statement from the Press Office says, “It is fundamental to restore trust in the Church through good pastors who bear witness with their lives to their having known the voice of the Good Shepherd, that they should be able to accompany the suffering of the victims and work in a determined and tireless way in the prevention of abuse.”

The hierarchical leadership of the Church has a long row to hoe if it would re-establish credibility. For the universal pastor of the universal Church, bringing the faithful into his confidence, so that they may know his thoughts with regard to a major crisis precipitated at least in part by his own failures of leadership, ought to be a no-brainer.