Peter Saunders last saw Pope Francis three weeks ago at the Vatican.
A London activist abused as a boy by two Jesuits at a Wimbledon school, Saunders, 57, was appointed in December 2014 to a papal advisory commission on protecting children.
After the commission’s October 14 meeting, Saunders met privately with Francis, as he explained to The Daily Beast in a telephone interview.
Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Francis’s point man on the abuse crisis, ushered Saunders in to see the pope. Pope Francis and Saunders first met in July 2014, one-on-one, at the papal residence Casa Santa Marta. At O’Malley’s invitation, Saunders recounted his history of abuse and recovery, to which Francis listened, and apologized. Several months later, O’Malley invited Saunders to join the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
As founder of a front-line activist group in the U.K, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, Saunders, at least on paper, was a natural choice as the Vatican sought credibility for internal reform.
Saunders still goes to Mass, and still sees a therapist to deal with the long, cold reach of his past.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” Saunders said to Francis in early October, shaking the pope’s hand.
“Of course I remember you,” said Francis, in English, with a smile.
“You need to come speak to us,” said Saunders, referring to the Pontifical Commission. “We need to talk to you.”
“Yes,” said the pope, nodding.
O’Malley, who speaks Spanish, stood by in case an interpretation was needed. None was necessary; the meeting was brief.
Of the pope’s “yes” to his request, Saunders told The Daily Beast, “I would be bitterly disappointed if the meeting were not organized when we gather in February.”
A few days after their exchange, Francis ignited a media firestorm in Chile by defending a controversial bishop, enmeshed in an abuse scandal, and denouncing his critics as “leftists.”
“As wonderful as everyone sees Francis to be, he has come out with some real howlers and we need to challenge him face-to-face,” says Saunders.
“Howlers” is a gentlemanly euphemism for the pope’s defense of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile, and the scheming between two cardinals to block a Chilean abuse survivor from joining the Vatican’s commission.
Francis approved Barros’s appointment as Bishop of Osorno earlier this year, despite a Chilean archbishop’s briefing, which referenced heavy public opposition to Barros for his alleged role in a sex scandal that has rocked Chile.
Barros was one of four seminarians who became priests, then bishops, as protegés of Father Fernando Karadima, a charismatic pedophile who gave sermons praising the dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s at an affluent parish in Santiago.
In 2010, the media seized on accusations by a doctor, college professor, and former journalist who claimed Karadima had abused them as youths. The Vatican investigated, and ordered Karadima into a secluded “life of prayer and penitence.” Then, Chile’s highest appellate court held a proceeding over many months to see if Karadima should go to prison.
Juan Carlos Cruz, the former journalist, was a key figure in both proceedings; he accused Barros of being present when Karadima abused him. Barros has denied it.
Karadima, already under a Vatican punitive order, denied in court that he abused anyone. After an exhaustive report, the court held that the statute of limitations prevented Karadima’s imprisonment.
When Barros went to Osorno to assume his diocese, TV footage showed raucous protests inside the church. Elected officials and prominent leaders spoke against him. Yet in May, when Pope Francis was asked about the situation after an audience in St. Peter’s, he spoke off the cuff to someone with a hand-held video: “The Osorno community is suffering because it’s dumb [and] has let its head be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof,” Francis said, according to a New York Times report.
“Don’t be led around by the nose by the leftists who organized all of this,” he said, as if talking to people in Chile, on the video.
“The comment about Barros and lefties was an exceptionally unhelpful thing to say,” says Saunders. “I know from my communications with people in Chile that huge offense was taken by good Catholic citizens for that comment in Osorno. There was more meaning and resonance in Chile because of the Pinochet dictatorship."
“Argentina had a similar fascist blight,” Saunders continued, referring to the country’s Dirty War (1976-83) when 30,000 people were disappeared, many presumed murdered by a regime whose leaders ended up in prison.
The pope himself, as Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had friends murdered by the regime, according to Nello Scaro’s Bergoglio’s List, on the young priest’s efforts to save his countrymen long before he ever imagined becoming pope. Francis’s chief biographers to date—Austen Ivereigh, Paul Vallely, and Marco Politi— treat his years as a young Jesuit provincial in the Dirty War as a nightmare experience.
Francis’s statement, says Saunders, “could be taken as almost aligning himself with that past reactionary attitude in Argentina ... I made the point to Sean O’Malley that it was a grave error, the Pope insulting Juan Carlos and people of his community. O’Malley didn’t shake his head and disagree.”
The “leftist” remark is stranger yet in light of the Chilean legal system’s careful proceedings against Karadima, and the fact that his alleged victims came from conservative backgrounds. Cruz now works in Philadelphia for a multinational corporation in communications.
The quagmire deepened when an email surfaced several weeks ago—leaked to a news outlet in Chile—of a correspondence between two Chilean cardinals, blasting Cruz as an enemy of the church.
Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz—who as Santiago’s archbishop had rebuffed victims’ accusations against Karadima in 2003, only to give the Vatican a 700-page dossier on the priest in 2010—recoiled from the prospect of Cruz, the chief accuser, landing a seat on the pope’s advisory commission. In an email to his protégé, the city’s current archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the elder cardinal said, “The serpent will not prevail.”
Errázuriz is a member of Francis’s “council of nine” cardinals, as is O’Malley, advising him on reform of the Roman Curia and other issues, like the abuse crisis.
Francis made a statement in late October, during the Synod on the Family, suggesting that he may be aware of his verbal overreach in the Barros case. “I would like to ask forgiveness in the name of the Church for the scandals that have happened in the last period both in Rome and the Vatican. I ask for your forgiveness.
But the pope’s request made no mention of which particular scandals he was referring to. A priest at Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had just come out of the closet and announced he had a lover—a sensational story in Rome, middle-page coverage in many American papers, here today, gone tomorrow. The pope gave no sign of apology for the words videotaped in Rome that aired in Chile.
Saunders and the other abuse survivor on the commission for protecting minors, Marie Collins of Dublin, have a high-credibility form of power with the larger group, heavy with priests. They, and Dr. Catherine Bonnet, a French psychiatrist and authority on child abuse, are unlike “most of the people on the commission who are in the employ of the church,” Saunders told The Daily Beast.
“We spoke quite openly in the commission about Juan Carlos,” says Saunders.
“The point Marie and I made was that, people who have suffered childhood abuse can be phenomenally fragile when they are re-traumatized by events. Juan Carlos learned he was proposed for the commission and then the news comes out with these cardinals [in Chile] referring to him as ‘the serpent.’ I’m not sure how I would react to someone if they referred to me in those terms. Our concern stated to commission members and Sean O’Malley was that, in the case of Juan Carlos, this was an attack on his community, his family and the people in Osorno. What the pope said and those cardinals said was dreadful; that’s the seriousness of how we as survivors have to process these attacks.”
O’Malley telephoned Cruz to apologize after the meeting.
Saunders’s criticism of Francis signals a measure of leverage in dealings with the commission, which has no authority to discipline bishops or cardinals. That responsibility has been invested in another Vatican congregation, Doctrine of the Faith, which defrocks pedophiles. A special tribunal to consider accusations against bishops and cardinals for complicity in such cases is barely underway.
In the meantime, Saunders, Collins and Dr. Bonnet stand as independent voices in a clerical bureaucracy accustomed to slowness and secrecy in dealing with embarrassments to the church.
“A meeting with the pope,” come February, could be much less than what it seems, depending on how the agenda is planned, and whether certain issues—like what Francis said about Chile, and what he meant in the opaque apology—are considered off the table.
With groups like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) sharply critical of the pope for inertia on the crisis, and directors of the online archive BishopAccountability.com raising hard questions about Francis’s commitment to dealing with negligent bishops, Saunders is playing for time, trying to push Francis, through O’Malley, into a more proactive reform posture.
Francis has been a revolutionary pope by virtue of his accessibility to the press and his adroit, innate sensibility about using the media as a theater for advancing the symbolic language of his agenda. But in making himself an “accessible” public figure he is bound to face consequences when people challenge certain statements.
“Good on Pope Francis for taking the risk with the likes of me and Marie,” Saunders said, “because we would never shut up, much to the disgust of quite a number of people in the Vatican and other parts of the church. By the fact that this commission has been instituted, my understanding is that we answer directly to Francis and no one else, which is helpful. We need to see the guy in order to [give] feedback. And as far as I’m concerned, the reason we are here is for protection of children, today and tomorrow—it’s not to make the church look better, and it cannot wait. The pope needs to man up and come talk to us in real dialogue.”
Jason Berry was co-producer of Frontline’s “Secrets of the Vatican,” and is author, most recently, of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.