Pope Francis’ troubling apology

In a letter regarding victims of sexual abuse in Chile, Pope Francis said, “I ask forgiveness of all those I have offended and I hope to be able to do it personally in the coming weeks.”

His apology comes after months of controversy, during which the Pope first apologized to Chilean victims of sexual abuse by the Church, but then strongly defended a Chilean Bishop accused of covering up those victims’ allegations. Pope Francis called their accusations “calumny” and said he had seen no evidence supporting them.

In the letter of apology made public today, he said that he “fell into serious errors in the evaluation and perception … due especially to the lack of true and balanced information.”

The Pope’s apology is encouraging, but also troubling. He sets an irreplaceable example of how to respond humbly when confronted with personal error, but he also appears to deflect personal responsibility. We look forward to clarification, after he meets with the Chilean victims, about why he didn’t believe the victims’ accusations, why he felt it was appropriate to denigrate the victims publicly, and whether he intends to be more circumspect in front of microphones in the future, since his ill-conceived words caused so much damage.

We also wonder if he is telling the truth about lacking necessary information.

The pope wrote his letter after he read a 2,300-page report detailing a investigation he commissioned in February to study allegations of sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Chilean Church.

On his visit to South America in January of 2018, the Pope was met with protests and outrage over the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse by Chilean Bishop Juan Barros.

Four men accuse Barros’ charismatic mentor, Fr. Fernando Karadima, of sexual abusing them, and Barros of ignoring warnings from parishioners and of covering up evidence. The accusers claim Barros was present during some of the abuse, but continued to protect and defend Karadima. A civil complaint against Karadima was dismissed for lack of evidence. The Vatican found him guilty in 2011 and sentenced him to a “life of prayer and penitence” and to “lifelong prohibition from the public exercise of any ministerial act, particularly confession and the spiritual guidance of any category of persons.” Barros continues to maintain his innocence.

On his South America trip in January, Pope Francis apologized to victims of sexual abuse, saying he felt “pain and shame” for the “irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church.”

But when confronted with questions about the specific allegations against Bishop Barros, the pope called the accusations “calumny.”

The pope told the press: “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Juan Barros, I will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It is calumny.” The Pope also told an AP reporter on the way home from South America, “You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward.”

But an AP Exclusive in February claimed that the Pope did have evidence against Barros, and that victims had come forward. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors says that they gave a letter from victim Juan Carlos Cruz to its president, Cardinal O’Malley, to be hand-delivered to the Pope before his South America visit. The letter “detailed the abuse, kissing and fondling [Cruz] says he suffered at Karadima’s hands, which he said Barros and others saw but did nothing to stop.”

Two members of the commission say that O’Malley confirmed to them that he did give the letter to the pope.  Cruz says O’Malley told him “he had given the letter to the pope — in his hands.”

On January 10, Cardinal O’Malley took the extraordinary step of publicly admonishing Pope Francis, saying that his comments “abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity, and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

Shortly after O’Malley’s rebuke, the Pope apologized for the hurt caused by his words. In February, he sent Archbishop Scicluna to Chile to conduct an exhaustive investigation of the alleged cover-up by Bishop Barros.

America Magazine reports that Scicluna presented the pope with a 2,300- page report based on interviews with 64 witnesses.

According to Catholic News service, in the letter made public on April 11,

Pope Francis apologized for underestimating the seriousness of the sexual abuse crisis in the country following a recent investigation into allegations concerning Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno.

But the Pope says his error was due to “lack of truthful and balanced information”:

The pope said he made “serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of the situation, especially due to a lack of truthful and balanced information.”

According to America Magazine,

He said, “From here on, I ask pardon of all those that I have offended, and I hope to do so personally in the coming weeks, in the meetings that I will have with representatives of the persons interviewed” by his envoys—Archbishop Scicluna and Father Jordi Bertomeu Farnos.

The Chilean bishops will meet with the Pope in the third week of May. Three of Karadima’s victims, including Cruz, will also meet with the Pope then.

Pope Francis’ apology and admission of error are unprecedented among popes, but troubling questions remain. In his letter, he blames his defense of Barros on “the lack of true and balanced information.” But if Cardinal O’Malley did hand-deliver the letter from victims, how can he say there was a lack of information? Did he read the letter? If not, why not? Did he read it but disregard what is said? If so, why would he do so, sixteen years after the Church has been shown to be guilty over and over and over again?

Even those who support and defend the Pope and his approach will find it difficult to understand his behavior in this matter. O’Malley and countless other faithful servants of Christ have been laboring hard to reform the Church, to make it safer for vulnerable people, and to reassure the world that things have changed. But a few ill-conceived words from its visible head have unravelled all their efforts more than once.

To victims, past and present, it must feel as though the Church has learned nothing.  How far can yet another apology go?


Image By Benhur Arcayan (Malacañang Photo Bureau) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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13 thoughts on “Pope Francis’ troubling apology”

  1. I get devoted Catholics wanting to give this man a pass on this. Religious brainwashing starting from a young age is extremely difficult to overcome especially when it’s got the beautiful love of Jesus in the mix. It’s taken me years of dedicated reading, meditating and prayer to free myself from this brainwashing. But what I don’t get is where is the steady outcry from the media over this? 3 and a half months after news broke that Pope Francis received the letter from Cruz detailing the coverup – hand delivered by O’Malley – he still hasn’t publicly commented on whether or not he received, read or contemplated the contents of this letter. This is absolutely mind boggling. All he had to say was “I never got the letter” and this would all have blown over. What greater proof could there be that this man is a con artist who has no interest in protecting children? Better a millstone tied around his neck…. From the victims quitting his commissions saying nothing is getting done, to hiring Cardinal Pell as his right hand man under a cloud of investigation for covering up of abuse, to this massive horrific Chilean coverup. He is a man not of his word but a man of words – hollow empty words. A show. A con. And all the while innocent children are still being victimized and the men who are supposed to report these crimes are getting the message from the top that it’s okay to cover it all up. He is completely complicit in these crimes. Better a millstone tied around his neck…

  2. Update on Pope Francis’ actions to make things right with the victims he offended: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-meets-with-three-survivors-of-clerical-sexual-abuse-from-chile
    He’s letting them stay at his house. There are no schedule restrictions on their time there so they can be the ones to set the pace.
    There won’t be official statements in order to protect their privacy.
    Cruz went to meet the Pope with an “open heart.”
    If he can, so can the rest of us. Obviously he hadn’t given up on the Pope, so I don’t see why anyone else (on the outside of this issue) should either.

  3. The apology is disappointing. Perhaps my expectations for this Pope are too high. The thing is, there’s two errors in judgment in this mess. What he didn’t do – listen to victims – and what he himself did, on the airplane, saying the victims were spreading calumny. He only apologized for the first thing, kind of blaming other people for it while he did so. Of course we should give the Pope the benefit of the doubt. But it reads like a non-apology. I think we know that Papa has a hard-charging temperament and not necessarily the best filter. (I cringed at the “rabbit” episode too). There may be all sorts of explanations for why he said what he did (age, chronic pain, hunger, tiredness.) But explanations aren’t excuses … if you’re going to apologize, don’t do it half way.

  4. I’m really grateful for the clear, and analytical responses by Susan and Claire. I just wanted to add one more thing. My mother and Pope Francis are only a month or so apart in age. — We have been spending Spring break with her. She’s sharp but she repeats herself a little and forgets some things. Pain in her knees and feet are a constant annoyance.

    I cannot imagine how Pope Francis pulls off his huge job. It’s like being the CEO of 1000 corporations. Without trusted advisers he’d be dead in the water.

    I’m over 30 years younger, and my kids know I’m so bad at multitasking that I’ll drive miles and miles past my exit, if they ask me an existential question. I’ve done it twice in the last three weeks.

    Yes, prayers for Papa Francis! I’m so grateful for all of his encouragement. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear what he’s been preaching until he said it, and then repeated it again in five different ways. It was like waiting my whole life to exhale, without realizing I’d been holding my breath for fear of breathing. My older kids feel the same way, and have warmed up in ways I had never hoped for. (My troublesome fourth who is 21 loves him and has taken to listening to Bishop Barron podcasts. Shocking. He has done a 180!) God bless Pope Francis. What a gift to the Church our Pope is. I wish I could give him un abarazo fuerte.

  5. The most “charitable” interpretation is that our pastors – right up to the Pope himself – continue to Not. Get it. It’s beyond frustrating, that after all this time and agony, They Do Not Get It. How else can lay people explain it to them so that they will understand?

    An authentic apology reads like this: “Speaking the way I did was inappropriate. I will weigh my words more carefully in the future.” Not a version of “sorry, I had bad information.”

    Whether he had bad info or not, it’s NOT appropriate to publicly accuse people that comes forward to report abuse of calumny. Imagine how painful it must have been to have come forward and hear the Pope accuse you of that. I’m reminded of the time the Pope brought up a specific woman he’d met, who had 7 cesarean sections, and recounted to the world’s media how in his opinion she was irresponsibly “breeding” like a “rabbit.”

    This is another thing the Holy Father does not seem to understand: Careless, undisciplined speech DAMAGES THE CHURCH and HURTS PEOPLE. It’s the current fashion in the Vatican that they can be sloppy and off the cuff with what is said or written, and it doesn’t really matter as long as the “Spirit” gets through. They are wrong!

  6. I am surprised by this post. I think your read on this apology is not correct, Simcha.

    What the Pope had was trusted advisers, and presumably personal friends, convincing him that this whole situation was a politically motivated attack on a good man. And haven’t we all known (most of us, anyway), really good men and women who have faced false and slanderous accusations? Don’t we feel defensive for their sakes?

    His mistake was to believe the hand-picked information he was fed. THAT’S what he is saying in this apology. It was a really, really big mistake. After decades and centuries of mistakes such as this by other church leaders. So it must be absolutely mortifying for him to realize he is now “one of those.” That is very clear now and I believe it will become even more clear by the end of May and whatever statements are issued after the commission’s full report and review. He couldn’t have been more wrong, more loudly and more publicly. He KNOWS that and furthermore he is saying it.

    So now he is convoking all the Chilean bishops to Rome. He is going to meet personally with as many victims as is humanly possible. After doing a complete U-turn when Cardinal O’Malley called him out. I am sure he is piling on the personal penances, too. That would be something he would do.

    It still won’t make up for the pain he caused, and I am sure he knows that FULL well, and must trust to God’s mercy.

    But as a leader he is showing what humble leadership after a serious and extremely grave mistake looks like, and that is the right thing to do. Of COURSE it will never be enough.

    Don’t forget, he is not the abuser priest. He is just someone who trusted the wrong people while trying to do the right thing and that is his fault. At least now he is trying to put it right, as far as he is able. That is what a good leader is expected to do, at least one who isn’t perfect. Jesus is the only one who got it right every single time and was never duped by anyone.

    1. I am with you on this, Claire.

      I can only imagine, of course, but I think Pope Francis, and other popes, are surrounded by dozens of advisors, who may have the good of the Church in their hearts, or not. It must be difficult to know who to trust among many who may have personal agendas to promote.

      In recent memory, St. Pope John Paul II, a thoroughly sensible, practical, intelligent, and holy man, was mislead in thinking that the head of the Legionairies of Christ was a holy shepherd who was an asset to the Church. He befriended him and promoted his Order and singled him out as an example of a faithful Catholic.

      In truth, Fr. Maciel was deeply evil and was unmistakably guilty of fathering two families with several children, squandering a fortune in LC funds for his own use, and sexually and emotionally abusing his seminarians, doing all of this for decades. Pope Benedict was left with the mess of appropriately disciplining Fr. Maciel, apologizing and praying for his victims, and of salvaging the Order, which was/is composed of faithful and good priests and lay people.

      Personally, I think Pope Francis displayed great humility and provided us with an excellent example by his public apology. He could have easily swept this under the rug – after all, how many of us have given it a second thought since the subject was first brought up?

      As Catholics, it is our duty to pray for the Church and for the Pope. *No one* bears the burdens he does. If he suffers, we in the Church also suffer. That also goes for our Catholic brothers and sisters all over the world who have endured abuse and pain at the hands of those representing the Church. We are not alone in gaining our salvation – we are also responsible for assisting others gaining heaving as well.

      Please, if everyone who reads this can, say a quick prayer for Pope Francis and for all our brother and sister Catholics who are suffering today.

      God bless and protect all here – Susan, ofs

  7. Have you ever been so spectacularly deceived by an earnest liar that when their deceit came to light you were utterly and completely bowled over?

    I’m just an idiotic housewife that has been sucked in by good liars. This hardly gives my opinion much weight, but I have to say that in my cursory skimming of the Chilean scandal, one of the main witnesses struck me as disingenuous. It seemed to me that he enjoyed the media spotlight and the interviews. It struck a bad note. —But even considering that distraction, the allegations were serious enough not to be brushed aside. Francis went on gut when he should have gone on the findings of a commission.

    I’m sure Francis has had many falsely accused priests pour out their woes to him, so he categorized Barros as being in that camp, just as he himself has been harshly the victim of other forms of calumny.

    Pope Francis is an honest man. I accept his mea culpa. I trust his honesty—even when he is wrong. Words That are so carefully scripted and sanitized of passion put everyone to sleep. Long after this little storm has passed, we will remember some good lessons. —Innocent until proven guilty is just one of them.

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