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Working to rebuild trust in the Chilean Church
The abuse scandals within Catholicism have had a profound effect on the moral authority of the Church, as well as the devastating effects on the victims. For many people, the spontaneous trust they once had in the Church and its leaders has been damaged. This also has affected the Church’s witness in the public square and allowed critics of the Faith to point fingers.
Reassuring people — particularly Catholics — that they can trust the Church, and restoring confidence in leadership, were the key themes of a meeting held in Santiago, Chile, May 6-7.
Disquiet among the faithful was brought into sharp focus in the Latin American nation of some 18 million people, where allegations of abuse and claims that some bishops conspired to cover it up marred Pope Francis’ January 2018 visit to the country.
Pope Francis later admitted that he had made a “grave error” in not believing some people who claimed they had been abused by priests in the country. He also invited the hierarchy to Rome to discuss the crisis, and the country’s 34 bishops offered their resignations. So far, Francis has accepted the resignations of eight of these bishops.
The pope also dropped Chilean Cardinal Javier Errazuriz from his C-9 group of cardinal-advisers over allegations the prelate mishandled abuse claims.
In the latest move to try to draw a line under the issue of confidence in the country’s bishops, the pope on March 23 replaced Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello as archbishop of the sprawling archdiocese of Santiago. The cardinal has come under scrutiny by Chilean authorities for the possible cover-up of the crimes of abusive priests Fernando Karadima, Rigoberto Tito Rivera Muñoz and Oscar Muñoz Toledo. Both cardinals deny covering up any abuse.
In all, 10 of the country’s 27 dioceses are awaiting the appointment of a new bishop, and Chile’s prosecutors have launched a probe into the overall handling of claims of abuse by Church leaders.
It was against this backdrop that some 250 people — many of them working in communications within the Church — came to the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile to discuss restoring confidence.
Entitled “Communicate to Rebuild Trust,” the seminar looked at practical ways to help Catholics and the wider public understand how the Church is responding to the challenge of the crisis. The message was clear: Church leaders have to act decisively on allegations of abuse to ensure that justice is done, and the Church can be a credible voice.
“To help restore confidence in the Chilean Church is why this theme was chosen,” rector of the university, Ignacio Sánchez, told Our Sunday Visitor.
Sánchez said the university is committed to facilitating reflection “around the causes, roots and structures that can explain part of the problems that afflict us as a Church.”
“In the face of the crisis that the Church is experiencing today, reflection and dialogue will allow us to overcome suspicion and defeat fear,” he said.
Sánchez explained that the university has committed substantial resources to an in-depth study of the wider issue of abuse in the Church. It has established a multidisciplinary commission to investigate the crisis in the Church, which is due to report in the fall.
Bringing together academics and researchers from the departments of theology, sociology, communications, social work, history, psychology, law and philosophy, the seminar sought to answer key questions about the root cause of abuse in the Church. It also looked at possible factors that led bishops and religious superiors to mishandle allegations when they were made.
Florencia Osorio, a researcher on the project, told OSV that the commission has interviewed dozens of experts across various fields.
“The project aims to improve our understanding of the specificity of the Chilean case, and to cover the whole problem that includes the nature of the abuse, but also the difficulties that have been faced in responding to this crisis and the impact that the crisis is having on the religious experience of Chileans,” she said.
Facing the truth
Sánchez is clear that the Church can only truly move forward when the truth is faced with courage.
“We must reconstruct a Church of encounter and service to the truth in order to face [these] problems without remaining stuck in them,” Sánchez said.
Marco Carroggio, from Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, spoke about the role of Church communications offices in terms of responding to the issue of abuse. He urged Church spokespersons and communications advisers to put themselves in the position of victims and survivors.
“We must be able to mourn with the wounds of others,” Carroggio said. “Good intention is not enough. You have to understand what goes on [in the lives of victims] in depth.”
He said that transparency must be at the heart of all Church communications.
“The truth, even when it is painful, always brings positive consequences,” Carroggio told delegates.
Eduardo Arriagada of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile was one of the main organizers of the seminar. He is adamant that openness to the media as well as victims and survivors must be part of the approach.
“One of the key solutions to the problems of a lack of trust in the Chilean Church is to take communications seriously and talk about the abuse problem seriously,” Arriagada said.
“The only real solution to the problem of trust is to meet victims face-to-face and listen to them and have a conversation,” he said. “That is what was lacking for a long time between the bishops and the victims [in Chile].”
The seminar also included practical workshops, including one on social media. Arriagada said this is particularly important to “talk to young people and — more importantly — to listen to them.”
The event came just days before Pope Francis’ new instruction, Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), on procedures for holding bishops and religious superiors accountable in protecting minors, which was signed May 7. It contained many of the themes discussed in Santiago.
Bishop Celestino Aós was chosen by Pope Francis as apostolic administrator to shepherd Santiago through this difficult period as the archdiocese awaits the appointment of a new archbishop. As the seminar at the university got underway, he had just returned from Rome where he was holding meetings with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. He revealed that he has now invited the head of that commission, his fellow Capuchin, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, to visit Chile as part of a plan to restore confidence.
According to Arriagada, the Church in Chile remains in a state of suspension.
“The pope didn’t finish the process of the nomination of a new group of priests to be bishops. … I think in this moment, we are in standby mode and we need the pope to act [on the appointment of new bishops]. … Now the people are waiting for that,” he said.
For his part Sánchez is hopeful that the seminar can make a modest contribution to help bring about healing in the Church. Ultimately, he said, the group wanted to grapple with the question of “how communications can help to improve confidence and favour the culture of encounter so that these open wounds can heal.
These wounds and the suffering of victims and survivors were key concerns at the seminar. The atmosphere was determined and, at the same time, hopeful for the future.
Delegates left with no naïveté about the challenge but with hope that confidence can be restored by prioritizing transparency and accountability.
Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.