Feb. 4, 2018: Pope Francis delivers a blessing from his studio's window overlooking St. Peter's Square on the occasion of the Angelus noon prayer at the Vatican. (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Pope Francis in 2015 was handed a letter from a man who claimed he was sexually abused by a priest and that Chilean clergy ignored his allegations, the letter's author and members of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors said, despite Francis insisting recently that no victims have come forward.
Francis' trip to South America last month was marred by protests over his vigorous defense of Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of covering up the abuse by the Rev. Fernando Karadima. During the trip, Francis dismissed accusations against Barros as "slander."
On the plane ride home, confronted by an AP reporter, the pope said: "You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven't seen any, because they haven't come forward."
But members of the pope's Commission for the Protection of Minors said that in April 2015, they sent a delegation to Rome specifically to hand-deliver a letter to the pope about Barros. The letter from Juan Carlos Cruz detailed the abuse, kissing and fondling he said he suffered at Karadima's hands. He claimed Barros and others witnessed the abuse but ignored it.
Four members of the commission met with Francis' top abuse adviser, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, explained their objections to Francis' recent appointment of Barros as a bishop in southern Chile, and gave him the letter to deliver to Francis.
"When we gave him (O'Malley) the letter for the pope, he assured us he would give it to the pope and speak of the concerns," then-commission member Marie Collins told the AP. "And at a later date, he assured us that that had been done."
Cruz, who now lives and works in Philadelphia, heard the same later that year.
"Cardinal O'Malley called me after the pope's visit here in Philadelphia and he told me, among other things, that he had given the letter to the pope — in his hands," he said in an interview at his home Sunday.
Neither the Vatican nor O'Malley responded to the Associated Press’ multiple requests for comment.
Feb. 4, 2018: Juan Carlos Cruz reads from his tablet during an interview with The Associated Press in Philadelphia. (AP)
While the 2015 summit of Francis' commission was known and publicized at the time, the contents of Cruz's letter — and a photograph of Collins handing it to O'Malley — were not disclosed by members. Cruz provided the letter, and Collins provided the photo, after reading an AP story that reported Francis had claimed to have never heard from any Karadima victims about Barros' behavior.
The Barros affair first caused shockwaves in January 2015 when Francis appointed him bishop of Osorno, Chile, over the objections of the leadership of Chile's bishops' conference and many local priests and laity. Barros was a Karadima protege, and according to Cruz and other victims, he witnessed the abuse and did nothing.
"Holy Father, I write you this letter because I'm tired of fighting, of crying and suffering," Cruz wrote in Francis' native Spanish. "Our story is well known and there's no need to repeat it, except to tell you of the horror of having lived this abuse and how I wanted to kill myself."
Cruz and other survivors had for years denounced the cover-up of Karadima's crimes, but were dismissed as liars by the Chilean church hierarchy and the Vatican's own ambassador in Santiago, who refused their repeated requests to meet before and after Barros was appointed.
After Francis' comments backing the Chilean hierarchy caused such an outcry in Chile, he was forced last week to do an about-face: The Vatican announced it was sending in its most respected sex-crimes investigator to take testimony from Cruz and others about Barros.
In the letter to the pope, Cruz begs for Francis to listen to him and make good on his pledge of "zero tolerance."
Cruz goes on to detail in explicit terms the homo-eroticized nature of the circle of priests and young boys around Karadima, the charismatic preacher whose El Bosque community in the well-to-do Santiago neighborhood of Providencia produced dozens of priestly vocations and five bishops, including Barros.
He described how Karadima would kiss Barros and fondle his genitals, and do the same with younger priests and teens, and how young priests and seminarians would fight to sit next to Karadima at the table to receive his affections.
"More difficult and tough was when we were in Karadima's room and Juan Barros — if he wasn't kissing Karadima — would watch when Karadima would touch us — the minors — and make us kiss him, saying: 'Put your mouth near mine and stick out your tongue.' He would stick his out and kiss us with his tongue," Cruz told the pope. "Juan Barros was a witness to all this innumerable times, not just with me but with others as well."
"Juan Barros covered up everything that I have told you," he added.
Barros has repeatedly denied witnessing any abuse or covering it up.
"I never knew anything about, nor ever imagined, the serious abuses which that priest committed against the victims," he told the AP recently. "I have never approved of nor participated in such serious, dishonest acts, and I have never been convicted by any tribunal of such things."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.