Rome >> When it comes to sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, supporters of Pope Francis are hoping that if indeed he was blind, now he sees.
Francis today dispatched the Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator to Chile, days after the pope’s vigorous, repeated and potentially disastrous defense of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who is accused of protecting the country’s most notorious pedophile priest.
“As a result of some information received recently regarding the case,” the Vatican said in a statement, the church will send to Chile the Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who has been called the Vatican’s Eliot Ness in fighting clerical sex abuse. There, the statement continued, he will “hear those who have expressed the desire to provide elements in their possession.”
By elements in their possession, the Vatican apparently means the testimony and painful stories of victims the pope had previously dismissed as slanderous accusations.
The pope’s belief of a powerful bishop over victims outraged advocates for the survivors of sexual abuse both outside and inside the church. The outcry over the pope’s blind spot to clerical sexual abuse, and his tin ear to the anguish of its victims, threatened to indelibly stain the pontificate of a usually politically astute pope.
The pope’s supporters on Tuesday quickly embraced the decision as an important course correction.
“It is a positive development in so far that it makes clear that the Holy See is interested to learn from and hear the testimonies of witnesses,” said the Rev. Hans Zollner, who served as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. It was clear Francis had “listened to the questions that some journalists have put to him,” Zollner added. “He has learned from the reactions.”
But victims in Chile said that while the news was welcome, they hoped it was not a public relations gambit.
“Nobody has said anything to us,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean who says he was sexually abused by the Rev. Fernando Karadima. He has said that Barros witnessed the abuse and did nothing about it.
He said he would be willing to testify, as victims have been doing to church law tribunals since 2005, and added, “We are encouraged.”
Francis’ trip to Chile in mid-January was overshadowed by his brusque remarks to a Chilean reporter that the accusations against Barros amounted to “slander.” The pope said he would weigh in on the matter if there were “proof” against the bishop.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and the leader of the pope’s commission on the protection of minors, called the pope’s remarks “a source of great pain for survivors” that relegated them “to discredited exile.”
In a clumsy attempt at damage control, the pope made a contradictory statement on the flight back to Rome. He apologized for demanding proof from alleged victims, saying the word was insensitive, but then reiterated that there was no “evidence” against the bishop, who he again said was the victim of slander.
Some victims of Karadima, a powerful priest convicted by the Vatican in 2011 for sexually abusing minors, have accused Barros of standing by as the priest kissed and abused them in the El Bosque Catholic parish.
On the plane, Francis said he had twice refused to accept the resignation of Barros, and in January 2015 he moved the bishop from leading Chile’s military ordinariate to the diocese of Osorno. The installation fractured the faithful and clergy of the city, with many opposing a bishop they considered complicit in sexual abuse.
The pope’s response mystified observers and vexed his supporters. Possible explanations tumbled out. Was he getting bad advice from his cardinal advisers? Was he protecting a friend? Was he a member of a Vatican faction that believes in “zero tolerance” or one that considers the abuse issue finished business? Was the pope, someone who faced accusations of supporting a violent regime as a cardinal in Argentina, loath to give into public pressure?
Tuesday’s statement suggested that public pressure had forced the pope to act and that far from infallible, Francis had perhaps spoken in Chile without knowing what he was talking about.
By contrast, Scicluna has in the last decade emerged as the Vatican prelate who most gets it when it comes to the issue of sexual abuse.
Scicluna, who declined to comment for this article, acted as a prosecutor during his time at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict XVI. He took on the powerful Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado of Mexico, the founder of the influential Legionaries of Christ, who was considered untouchable because of his close ties to and protection under Pope John Paul II.
For years, Vatican prelates dismissed the accusations of Degollado’s victims as slander, but Scicluna listened to them and, after John Paul’s death, convinced the Vatican that Degollado had abused seminarians in his own order.
Benedict sentenced Degollado to a life of penance and prayer in 2006. Degollado died in 2008, and was later shown to have been a serial molester who fathered children by two women.
Scicluna subsequently explained that Benedict, previously John Paul’s chief doctrinal watchdog, had undergone a conversion on the issue as he sat at his desk reading horrific dossier after horrific dossier.
Advocates for Francis hope that Scicluna will now figure in opening up the eyes of another pontiff.
“It is good that he has now looked anew and taken this step,” Marie Collins, an abuse survivor who last year resigned in frustration from the pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, wrote on Twitter.
Despite Francis’ early promises to rid the church of abuse, many Vatican watchers consider him far less effective than Benedict, who removed many priests. Francis has mostly disappointed those who hoped he would bring accountability to the church hierarchy.
Last year, he instead recalled a Vatican diplomat accused of possession of child pornography back to Rome, despite efforts by U.S. authorities to strip the priest of his immunity. Last month, the terms of the members of the Vatican commission on abuse expired. The pope has called the delay in restarting the commission “normal.”
Zollner, himself a member of that commission, said he had personally witnessed meetings between Francis and victims. In Chile, he said, the pope, like any leader, found himself in an “ethical dilemma” in which he wanted to believe victims but needed to be sure that their allegations were true.
And given the intense attention on the issue now, he said, Scicluna’s mission to get to the bottom of it will be especially challenging.
“He needs to get as much evidence as possible now,” he said. “One way or the other.”