After the pope’s January visit to Chile and his determined defense of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up crimes of sex abuse, we asked if there was hope for real change in the Church in the area of safeguarding. Pope Francis’s recent letter to the Chilean bishops’ conference, released by the Holy See on Wednesday evening, is heartening. The latest development in a situation that has gotten much attention, the pope wrote the letter after reading the 2,300-page report on the state of affairs in Chile, compiled by Vatican envoys Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Rev. Jordi Bertomeu Farnós, who collected the testimonies of 64 people. Francis disclosed that “the collected testimonies speak in a stark way, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives,” and he confessed “that that causes [him] pain and shame.” He expressed his desire to directly ask for forgiveness from victims, which he hopes to do in meetings with some of the people who were interviewed.
Acknowledging that he had made “serious mistakes in [his] assessment and perception” of the sex abuse crisis in Chile, he attributed these mistakes in part to a “lack of truthful and balanced information.” This lacuna points to a deeper dilemma – a culture of cover-up that has flourished within the hierarchy of the Church. The culture of cover-up may in turn indicate still deeper problems, such as theological problems that theologians have yet to reckon with, such as the shared responsibility of the bishops and the faithful for the spiritual well-being of the Church and the consistency of its mission.
By summoning the Chilean episcopal conference to Rome (as Benedict XVI summoned all Irish bishops to Rome in 2010 to discuss clerical child sex abuse) Francis shows his desire to be fully informed. He has also put concrete action on the agenda, asking for the bishops’ “collaboration and assistance in discerning the short, mid and long term measures that must be adopted to re-establish ecclesial communion in Chile, with the goal of repairing as much as possible the scandal and re-establishing justice.”
The institutional church, certain structures and societal elements, will not change until church culture changes, and cultural change is a complex and arduous process with both positive developments and setbacks. Pope Francis’s letter is a step in the right direction.