VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis admitted Wednesday he made "grave errors" in judgment in Chile's sex abuse scandal and invited the victims he had discredited to Rome to beg their forgiveness.
In an extraordinary public letter, Francis also summoned all of Chile's bishops to the Vatican for an emergency meeting in the coming weeks to discuss repairing the damage from the scandal, which has badly tarnished his reputation and that of the Chilean church.
The Vatican orders up such emergency visits only on rare occasions, such as when American bishops were summoned in 2002 after the clerical sex abuse scandal exploded in the U.S. and in 2010 when Irish bishops received a comprehensive Vatican dressing down for their botched handling of abuse cases.
Francis blamed a lack of "truthful and balanced information" for his missteps in judging the case of Bishop Juan Barros, a protege of Chile's most notorious predator priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima. Francis strongly defended the bishop during his January visit to Chile despite accusations by victims that Barros had witnessed and ignored their abuse.
In Chile and during an airborne press conference returning to Rome, Francis accused the victims of "calumny" for pressing their case against Barros, demanded they present "proof" of their claims and revealed he had twice rejected Barros' resignation.
"I am convinced he is innocent," the pope insisted.
After causing an outcry, Francis sent the Vatican's most respected sex abuse investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to look into the scandal.
While his letter didn't reveal his ultimate conclusions about Barros, Francis made clear that he and the bishops have a lot of work to do to turn the Chilean church around.
In words that laid bare his simmering anger, Francis said they must "re-establish confidence in the church, confidence that was broken by our errors and sins, and heal the wounds that continue to bleed in Chilean society."
But the Chilean bishops insisted they had been truthful to Francis about the need to get rid of Barros — they had proposed he resign and take a year sabbatical — and victims' advocates said Francis had only himself to blame, since the accusations against Barros were well known and well-founded.
Anne Barrett Doyle, of BishopAccountability.org, an online abuse resource, noted an Associated Press report that Francis received a personal letter about Barros' misdeeds from a victim in 2015, but seemingly chose to ignore it.
"If Francis was misinformed or inadequately informed, it was because he chose to be so," she said.
Karadima was a charismatic preacher who was removed from ministry by the Vatican for sexually abusing minors and sentenced in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer. Karadima had long been a darling of the Chilean hierarchy, and his victims have accused church leaders of covering up his crimes to protect the church's reputation.
Scicluna and his colleague, the Rev. Jordi Bertomeu, spent nearly two weeks in Chile and New York earlier this year interviewing Karadima's victims, who for years have denounced Barros' silence and were stunned by Francis' strong defence of him.
In his letter, Francis thanked the 64 people who testified and had the courage to bare the "wounds of their souls" for the sake of truth. After reading the 2,300-page dossier his envoys prepared, Francis affirmed the victims "spoke in a stark way, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives."
"I confess this caused me pain and shame," he wrote.
"For my part, I recognize - and so I want it to be faithfully transmitted - that I have fallen in grave errors of judgment and perception of the situation, especially due to the lack of truthful and balanced information," Francis wrote. "From now on I ask forgiveness of all those I offended and I hope to be able to do it personally in the coming weeks."
In a statement, Barros' three main accusers said they appreciated Francis request for forgiveness and were weighing his invitation to meet. They said they would continue fighting for reparation and forgiveness "until zero tolerance about abuse and coverup in the church becomes a reality."
Many of Chile's bishops, and members of Francis' own sex abuse advisory board, had questioned Barros' suitability to lead a diocese given claims by Karadima's victims that Barros stood by and did nothing while Karadima groped them.
Francis overrode their concerns and appointed Barros bishop of the southern Chilean diocese of Osorno in 2015, saying the church had investigated the claims against him and found them to be baseless.
Osorno's lay Catholics and many Osorno priests rejected him, and they greeted Francis' letter Wednesday with graciousness, accepting his request for forgiveness but renewing their demand for Barros' removal.
The head of the Chilean bishops' conference, Monsignor Santiago Silva, insisted the Chilean church had provided only truthful information to Francis about Barros. But, he added, "obviously we didn't do everything we should have done."
Other clerics more favourable to Barros had Francis' ear: the Vatican ambassador, who has long been hostile to Barros' accusers; the retired archbishop of Santiago, who has accused Cruz of being a liar and "serpent"; and an old Spanish Jesuit friend who evaluated Barros years ago.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield reported this story at the Vatican and AP writer Eva Vergara reported from Punta de Tralca, Chile.