How Chile Changed Pope Francis

By Mark Joseph Williams

A half-century ago, my life was transformed by the untimely and tragic deaths of four men: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Thomas Merton, and Joseph R. Williams. King, 39, and Kennedy, 42, assassinated. Merton, 53, a Trappist monk, electrical accident. Williams, my father, 40, a nuclear veteran exposed to ionizing radiation while in Nevada during the Korean War, acute leukemia. Today, I realize how much their lives shaped me. I now understand, too, how vulnerable I was after they died.

A year later, at 13 years old, innocence vanished. I was raped by a male teacher. A year after that, I was sexually molested by a Roman Catholic priest, and this clerical abuse continued throughout my high school years. There is no statute of limitations on interior pain. One’s core is forever scarred. You simply never forget nor free yourself completely from the darkness of shame. 

Human sexuality is simply staggeringly complex, and the violation of a person, especially a child, must be paramount to any discussion of sustaining the presence and substance of healing. I know. It takes decades to utter anything about the experience, and some are never able to. That women are coming forward now, across so many industries and walks of life, is so right. I applaud their courage. Voice does bring down power. 

When I first heard Pope Francis’s comments this past January during his visit to Chile, I was astonished and perplexed. I had come to embrace with gratitude the hope this papacy raised across the world, particularly with respect to victims of sexual abuse in and out of the pews. The bishop of Rome just seemed out of character when pressed to comment on Bishop Juan Barros of Chile, a man widely known for protecting a notorious Chilean pedophile priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima. 

Victims like me questioned why Francis seemed to be protecting Barros, denying any knowledge that his fellow Latin bishop was part of a cover-up, becoming defensive, saying that no one had come forward, even proclaiming calumny in broadly describing Chilean abuse claims.

Right after the pope’s visit to Chile, and then Peru, I wrote Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, who came out strongly defending the survivors in Chile, an exceedingly rare display of a prelate bucking his boss, the successor to St. Peter. 

Encouraged, I penned, “As you so rightly implied, survivors must never feel exiled; the abused seek the hope found in the cross, the joy that comes from being able to embrace and live the gospel. But, going forward, I trust you agree wholeheartedly, our beloved church must continue to discern both deeply and strongly and, when appropriate, take action with those found complicit in any way.” 

After much pressure from the press and many inside the church, including Cardinal O’Malley, I’m sure, coupled with, I presume, significant prayer and reflection, Francis sent a delegation to Chile led by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, known for his unabashed investigation skills. Scicluna got right to it, taking testimony of 64 people involved, including one prominent victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, who never wavered from shining a light on a horrid past.

His courage was palpable. If the essence of the church meant being a field hospital, reaching the margins, loving the poor in spirit — as Francis had told his flock — then there was the promise of compassion, understanding, and justice, finally, with the investigators’ findings. 

The pontiff, in response, acknowledging his own weakness, invited Chilean victims to meet with him in Rome and with welcomed humility wrote, “As far as my role, I acknowledge, and ask you to convey faithfully, that I have made grave errors in assessment and perception of the situation, especially as a result of lack of information that was truthful and balanced.” 

The wounds of the abused bled truth. At 81, Pope Francis, able to change, sent a piercing message of mercy to survivors not only in Chile but throughout heaven and earth. As Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” 

After spending much time with Mr. Cruz and two other Chilean survivors in his private residence, Pope Francis convened a session in Rome with the bishops from Chile, and all 34 offered their resignations, an unprecedented sign of omission for those in positions of power within the church. 

As a survivor, this feels like a watershed moment. For prelates to admit sin is freeing. As Mr. Cruz put it, “the mass resignation was an enormous victory for survivors of abuse all over the world.” The bishop of Rome, I can only imagine, was profoundly pained when telling these complicit bishops how the systemic failures within the Chilean church had left him “perplexed and ashamed.”

In my mind, he was speaking to me as a survivor as well as to the entire church. If the Holy Father can change, then the church can and must change, perhaps forever, from this Chilean experience. 

As I thought further about this hopeful historical moment regarding the clerical abuse scandal, I recalled what Pope Francis had expressed when he addressed Congress in the House chamber in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, 2015, citing the example of four courageous Americans who truly changed history: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. He told the assembled: “They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.” 

Merton’s words, especially, which are etched on my father’s tombstone, speak to the journey of all humankind: “Our world without storms and our lives without agony would give us nothing to grow on. Make us glad for stormy weather.”

Mark Joseph Williams, who grew up in East Hampton, is a forensic social worker and management consultant. He lives in Far Hills, N.J., and is at work on a memoir.