Pope Francis has pledged to take action on abuse. Here comes a big test

Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz (CNS)

When Chile’s bishops come to Rome for emergency meetings with Pope Francis next week to discuss the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Chilean Church, reports are that one senior figure is planning not to be there. Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, the Archbishop-emeritus of Santiago, member of the “C9” Council of Cardinal Advisers, and a key player in the controversy, has let it be known that he plans not to attend.

The reasons Cardinal Errázuriz has apparently given are that he only recently got back from Rome, and has already given a report to the Holy Father on the “Barros Affair” – so called because it revolves around Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile, a protégé of the country’s most notorious paedophile priest, Fernando Karadima. The matter is the proximate cause of the scandal and crisis currently playing out. Not to put too fine a point on it, if Cardinal Errázuriz is allowed to skip the gathering, he will be rather conspicuous by his absence.

According to Chile’s La Tercera, the “long report” is a 14-page document Cardinal Errázuriz gave to the Pope on “the trial of Fr Karadima and the ramifications of the case”. He also told the Chilean outlet, “So for that, I’ve already made my contribution.” Though emeritus bishops are not required to attend, the idea that a figure so central to the Church in Chile over the past three decades, as well as to the scandal and crisis facing the Church in the country at present, could simply skip the meetings, has stunned many groups in Chile. Voces Católicas and Laicos de Orsorno have issued statements expressing disappointment.

Bishop Barros has long faced public accusations, which he rejects, of having played a major role in the coverup of his mentor’s crimes. Pope Francis appointed him to the see of Osorno in 2015, over the objections of laity and clergy alike. On a visit to Chile at the start of the year, the Pope accused Barros’s accusers of “calumny”. After facing widespread criticism, the Pope set up a special investigation, led by Archbishop Charles Scicluna.

After reading Archbishop Scicluna’s 2300-page dossier, Pope Francis summoned the bishops of Chile to Rome. In a statement, he asked forgiveness of those he had offended, and said, “I have made serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of the situation, especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information.”

The three victims at the centre of the Barros Affair – Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and José Andres Murillo – all believe Cardinal Errázuriz is one of the Church leaders who were misleading the Pope.

At a press conference in Rome last Wednesday at the Foreign Press Club, following private meetings with the Pope, Hamilton said: “Cardinal Errázuriz covered up for more than five years the crimes of Karadima.” Hamilton also said, “According to canon law and for the victims, he’s a criminal who covered up for Karadima and his circle.”

Cardinal Errázuriz maintains his innocence. So the question now is whether Pope Francis will make sure the cardinal attends the Rome meeting. Presumably Cardinal Errázuriz expects the Pope will let him stay away. But Chileans – and others – will be disappointed if Francis does so.

Francis has admitted he was “part of the problem” in Chile’s abuse crisis. The meeting of the Chilean bishops is a great test of whether he really is ready to start being part of the solution. The prepared statement of Cruz, Hamilton, and Murillo framed the issue this way:

We expressed to [Pope Francis] how the Church has a duty to become an ally and a guide in the global fight against abuse, and a refuge for victims, something that unfortunately does not happen today. In our lives, we have met many priests, men and women religious, committed to justice and the dignity of every single human being: honest and courageous people who have made progress in this fight, they are many, and they are essential.

The question facing Pope Francis now is: what sort of leader does he want to be? After spending the weekend hearing hard things from the victims he had accused of calumny, he told them, “There’s no turning back now.” Regardless of Cardinal Errázuriz’s intention, his decision has challenged the Pope to make good on that pledge.