VATICAN CITY — In a conversation with Jesuits during his recent visit to Peru, Pope Francis said he regularly meets with victims of sexual abuse on Fridays, and that, while the percentage of priests who abuse is relatively low, even one is too many.
When it comes to sexual abuse, if you look at the statistics, roughly “70% of pedophiles are in the family environment, acquaintances; then in gyms, at the pool,” the Pope said in a conversation with Peruvian Jesuits, published Feb. 15.
The meeting took place Jan. 19, after a courtesy visit to Peruvian President Pedro Kuczynski during a three-day papal visit to the country, which was part of a wider Jan. 15-21 visit to South America.
“The percentage of pedophiles that are Catholic priests doesn’t reach 2%; it’s around 1.6%. So it’s not a lot,” he said. However, Francis stressed that “it’s terrible even if it were just one of our brothers!”
“God anointed them for the sanctification of children and adults, and he, instead of sanctifying them, has destroyed them. It’s horrible!” he said, and he underlined the importance of listening to victims and hearing directly about the suffering they’ve undergone.
To this end, he said he regularly meets with victims of abuse on Fridays, and “their process is so difficult; they are annihilated. They are annihilated!”
For the Church, abuse is “a great humiliation,” he said. “It shows not only our fragility, but also, let’s say it clearly: our level of hypocrisy.”
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed the news about the Friday meetings, saying in a Feb. 15 statement that “several times a month” Pope Francis meets with victims of sexual abuse either individually or in groups.
Pope Francis, he said, “listens to the victims and tries to help them heal the serious wounds caused by the abuses they’ve undergone. The meetings are held with the utmost privacy, in respect of the victims and their suffering.”
The Pope’s comments were made to Peruvian Jesuits during his recent Jan. 15-21 visit to Chile and Peru. He met privately with Jesuits in both countries, taking questions from attendees and listening to their concerns.
The conversations, published in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, touched on a variety of issues and included Francis’ discussion with both the Chilean and Peruvian Jesuits. Both Chile and Peru are currently at the center of two major, high-profile cases of sexual abuse, with abuses committed by a Chilean priest and a Peruvian layman.
Francis met privately with abuse victims in Chile and spoke openly about the tragedy in his Jan. 18 meeting with priests and religious in the country. His comments on abuse were made in response to a question posed by a Peruvian Jesuit about how to handle sex abuse and whether he had any encouragement to give.
Speaking to the some 100 Jesuits present for the Jan. 19 encounter, Francis responded to the question by saying sex abuse is “the greatest desolation that the Church is undergoing.”
He recalled a time when he was returning home in Argentina. After getting off the metro, he saw a couple with a young toddler walking down the street. When the child started to run in his direction, the father immediately yelled for the child to come back and to “watch out for the pedophiles.”
“What shame I underwent! What shame!” Pope Francis said. “They didn’t realize that I was the archbishop, I was a priest — and what shame!”
He noted that, oftentimes, abuse, particularly in new and flourishing communities, is linked to corruption, citing three types of abuse that often go together.
“Abuse in these congregations is always the result of a mentality linked to power, which must be healed at its evil roots,” he said, explaining that the various communities undergoing scandals generally all suffer from a deadly trio of “abuse of authority, with which it means to mix the internal and external forum, sexual abuse and economic messes.”
Noting how both he and Benedict XVI have had to “suppress” various communities, such as the Legionaries of Christ, Francis said there are “many painful cases” and that this phenomenon has also affected new and prosperous congregations, most notably the Peruvian-born Sodalitium Christianae Vitae.
In cases like this, “money is always in the middle,” he said, adding that “the devil enters through the wallet.”
According to St. Ignatius, one of the first steps of temptation is for wealth, he said. “Then come vanity and pride, but first there is wealth. In the new congregations that have fallen into this problem of abuse, these three levels are also found together.”
However, citing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, the Pope said the shame experienced can also be a grace, and he urged his fellow Jesuits to accept these experiences “as a grace and be deeply ashamed,” because “we must love the Church with her wounds.”
Though spoken beforehand, the Pope’s comments have been made public at a time when he is under fire for his reaction to accusations of abuse cover-up on the part of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid of Osorno, Chile.
Appointed to head the Osorno Diocese by Pope Francis in 2015, Bishop Barros is accused of both witnessing and covering the abuse of his longtime friend Father Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty of abuse in 2011. Bishop Barros has repeatedly denied these claims.
Opposition to Bishop Barros and his appointment has been relentless since his installment in 2015. Pope Francis faced major blowback during his visit to Chile for saying the accusations against bishop were unfounded and amounted to “calumny.”
On his flight back to Rome, Francis apologized for the comment, saying he had intended to say that there was not enough evidence to convict Barros of cover-up and that no victims had come forward with information that could prove the Chilean prelate’s guilt.
Shortly after the visit, Francis tapped Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top man in clerical-abuse-appeals cases, to go to Santiago to hear victims’ testimonies. The trip also includes a stop in New York to speak with one of Father Karadima’s most high-profile victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, who has been among the most vocal opponents of Bishop Barros.
After Archbishop Scicluna’s appointment, reports came out indicating that before Bishop Barros’ appointment in 2015, Cruz had sent an eight-page letter detailing Father Karadima’s abuse to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, alleging that Bishop Barros had not only witnessed his abuse and the abuse of others, but had at times participated and covered it up.
According to reports, members of the commission had given the letter to the commission’s president, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who is said to have presented it to the Pope, raising questions as to whether Francis had read it and was aware of Cruz’s testimony before naming Bishop Barros to Osorno.