“I felt that it hurt him”

This has never happened before: for days, abuse victims and the pope lived under one roof, spoke without time limit. The guests are impressed – but expect consequences.

Anger and trust. For several days, three men spoke with Pope Francis about the darkest episodes of their lives: sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and the resistance when they wanted the truth to come to light. In the end, they thought they had seen "the friendly face of the Church," the opposite of the undergrowth of power, violence and lies that they encountered in their youth in Chile.

Credibility crisis of the pope

Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo called sexual abuse by clergy an "epidemic". An epidemic of crime and depravity that had "thousands" on its conscience, they told reporters in Rome on Wednesday. "We speak from experience. An experience that others could not survive."

The impetus for the invitation to the Vatican was not what happened to these men three and a half decades ago at the El Bosque parish center in Santiago, but that the stories of the cluelessness of some of today's church superiors began to crack.

A spiritual foster son of El Bosque priest Fernando Karadima, Bishop Juan Barros, Francis had still publicly defended during his Chile trip in January. This has resulted in the pope's most serious credibility crisis to date.

One-on-one meetings lasted two to three hours

The three men spent a week at the papal residence of Santa Marta to discuss with Francis the causes of the abuse scandal and how to deal with it. The Vatican did not specify the content or time frame of the talks. Everything should be allowed to be addressed, each topic should be given as much time as necessary. The individual discussions lasted a good two to three hours; on Monday they met again for a joint round.

Going into little detail, Cruz, Hamilton and Murillo took stock of the situation. They described the "pathological and unrestricted exercise of power" as a cornerstone of abuse and cover-up. As long as abuse is not atoned for, repetition is possible and networks of violence can continue to grow. In Murillo's view, a new approach to power also requires a different participation of groups whose influence in the church has so far been limited, such as women.

"I have never seen anyone so contrite"

The three of them, it became clear, presented very fundamental reform approaches to the head of the church; apparently, this was precisely what Francis also wanted. Guests and hosts also seemed to have found each other on a personal level. The pope asked for their forgiveness personally and in the name of the church. "Never have I seen anyone so contrite," Cruz said. "I felt that it hurt him."

Francis admitted to having been "part of the problem" himself, according to Cruz. Murillo even said that the Pope had preserved the claim to infallibility precisely by admitting errors. Left open: what happened to the incriminating dossier on Bishop Barros that Cruz forwarded to Francis in early 2015 via Cardinal Sean O'Malley? Had not received it, had not read it or had not taken it seriously? Even Cruz couldn't answer the question Wednesday.

This meeting differed from all previous meetings with victims of abuse by its duration alone: for days the three lived with Francis under one roof, the conversations went far beyond personal descriptions of their experiences. Basically, the meeting was the preparation for a crisis meeting for which the Chilean bishops have been summoned to the Vatican for mid-May.

Consequences expected for offenders

That's unusual – for abuse victims to help set the agenda of a bishops' meeting, making them players in the exercise of church leadership. Cruz, Hamilton and Murillo stated that the Pope requested a proposal paper from them for the next few days and they want to continue to be in contact.

But the three now expect consequences for those by whom they have been antagonized over the years for their struggle: for example, a Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, a member of the Pope's closest circle of advisors, or a Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati. They call them criminals, cover-ups and "toxic". They want to see action. Otherwise, the anger will return.

Burkhard Jurgens

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