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Vatican Tries To Defuse Scandal, Says Pope Meets Victims

Thursday Feb 15, 2018
Pope Francis arrives at the Basilica of Saint Anselmo prior to walking in procession to the Basilica of Santa Sabina before the Ash Wednesday mass opening Lent.
Pope Francis arrives at the Basilica of Saint Anselmo prior to walking in procession to the Basilica of Santa Sabina before the Ash Wednesday mass opening Lent.  (Source:Associated Press)

The Vatican said Thursday that Pope Francis meets frequently with victims of sexual abuse, seeking to defuse a mounting scandal over his unbridled support for a Chilean bishop accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.

Spokesman Greg Burke said in a statement Francis meets in private with victims individually or in groups several times a month to listen to their stories "and help them to heal their serious wounds."

In comments also released Thursday, Francis called clerical sex abuse a "humiliation" that exposes the church's "hypocrisy."

Francis is facing one of the gravest crises of his papacy after he dismissed victims' complaints that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros covered up their abuse. During his recent trip to Chile, Francis repeatedly called their accusations slander and said he was certain of Barros' innocence.

After his comments sparked outrage, Francis was forced to do an about-face and send in a Vatican investigator to look into accusations against Barros, a protege of Chile's most notorious predator priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's respected former sex crimes investigator, begins his fact-finding mission on Saturday by meeting with Barros' main accuser.

The Vatican in 2010 sanctioned Karadima to a lifetime of penance and prayer for sexually and psychologically abusing minors and adult seminarians in his El Bosque parish community in a well-to-do neighborhood of Santiago. Victims told both Vatican and Chilean prosecutors that Karadima would kiss and fondle them in public, and that behind closed doors, he would masturbate his preferred acolytes and have them confess on their knees in front of his crotch.

Juan Carlos Cruz and two other key whistleblowers have said Barros witnessed their abuse, ignored it and even participated in the psychological abuse that Karadima would then inflict on them when he sensed disobedience or disloyalty.

Barros has denied witnessing any abuse or covering it up.

Francis sparked outrage in 2015 when he appointed Barros, then Chile's military chaplain, to head the diocese of Osorno, Chile, over the objections of some members of the Chilean bishops' conference. They feared continued fallout from the Karadima affair and had recommended that Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops resign and take a year-long sabbatical.

Francis has said he overruled their recommendation and rejected Barros' resignation twice because he said he couldn't in good faith remove him when he had no evidence of Barros' wrongdoing.

The Associated Press, however, reported that Francis received an eight-page letter from Cruz in April 2015 detailing his abuse and how Barros witnessed it and ignored it. Cruz had mailed similar versions of the letter to the pope and his ambassador in Santiago, but never received any response.

Cruz has also said that during the Karadima investigations, which began in 2009, he testified about Barros' behavior on at least four separate occasions, twice to Chilean church investigators and twice to Chilean state judicial authorities.

Francis had said during his in-flight press conference returning from South America that he had never heard from any victims about Barros' behavior.

The Vatican announced Scicluna's fact-finding mission about a week later.

The timing of Burke's statement revealing Francis' regular encounters with victims coincided with the release Thursday of a transcript of a meeting Francis held with his fellow Jesuits in Chile and Peru during which he said that he met with victims more often than was previously known, often on Fridays.

He said the shame of sexual abuse in the church was a "great humiliation."

"It shows not only our fragility but also, let us say so clearly, our level of hypocrisy," Francis said.

Francis had said before that he met with victims more frequently than previously announced, but Thursday's announcements provided more details about just how often those meetings were.

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