VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican said Thursday that Pope Francis meets frequently with victims of sexual abuse, seeking to defuse a mounting scandal over his unbridled support for a Chilean bishop accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse.
Spokesman Greg Burke said Francis meets in private with victims individually or in groups several times a month to "listen to them and try to help them to heal their serious wounds."
Yet at least one Chilean abuse victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, wondered if Francis had really heard what they said, given Francis' dismissal of Cruz's complaints that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros covered up his abuse. During a recent trip to Chile, Francis repeatedly called accusations against Barros by Cruz and other victims slander and said he was certain of Barros' innocence.
Cruz said Thursday the problem of clerical abuse is global and has not stopped.
"It should be a priority, and not a false 'zero tolerance,'" he told The Associated Press, echoing Francis' frequent insistence that he has "zero tolerance" for abuse.
After his abuse comments sparked outrage, Francis was forced to do an about-face and send in a Vatican investigator to look into accusations against Barros, a protege of Chile's most notorious predator priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's respected former sex crimes investigator, begins his fact-finding mission on Saturday by meeting with Cruz, the main accuser against Barros.
Cruz and two other key whistleblowers have said Barros witnessed their abuse, ignored it and even participated in the psychological abuse that Karadima would then inflict on them when he sensed disobedience or disloyalty.
Barros has denied witnessing any abuse or covering it up.
Francis sparked outrage in 2015 when he appointed Barros, then Chile's military chaplain, to head the diocese of Osorno, Chile, over the objections of some members of the Chilean bishops' conference who were concerned about fallout from Karadima's actions.
Francis has said he overruled their recommendation and rejected Barros' resignation twice because he said he couldn't in good faith remove him when he had no evidence of Barros' wrongdoing.
The AP, however, reported that Francis had received an eight-page letter from Cruz in April 2015 detailing his abuse and how Barros witnessed it and ignored it. Cruz had mailed similar versions of the letter to the pope and his ambassador in Santiago, but never received any response.
On Thursday, asked to respond to revelations of the pope's meetings with abuse victims, Cruz said if Francis truly did listen to victims, he would have learned how much they suffer, particularly when they are mistreated by their own pastors.
"We shouldn't have to wait until the media are banging on the door to do something," he said.
Anne Barrett Doyle, of the online resource database BishopAccountability.org, said the revelation of Francis' frequent meetings with victims raises the question of whether he has a double standard about which types of victims he believes.
"He appears not to listen to victims who expose the complicity of church hierarchs," she said in an email. "His response to those victims is silence or even, as we saw in Chile, counterattack."
Burke's statement revealing Francis' regular encounters with victims coincided with the release Thursday of a transcript of a meeting Francis held with his fellow Jesuits in Chile and Peru during which he said that he met with victims more often than was previously known, often on Fridays.
Francis said the shame of sexual abuse in the church was a "great humiliation."
Eva Vergara contributed from Santiago, Chile.