VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is digging deeper into the roots of Chile's sex abuse scandal by meeting with a group of priests who were trained in a cult-like Catholic community and suffered psychological and sexual abuse there.
Francis celebrated Mass on Saturday with three priests trained by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a powerful preacher in Chile who was sentenced by the Vatican in 2011 to a lifetime of penance and prayer for having sexually and spiritually abused young parishioners through an abuse of power.
The Vatican said the Mass and subsequent weekend meetings would help Francis better understand life inside Karadima's El Bosque community, which catered to the rich and powerful of Santiago society during and after the Pinochet dictatorship.
A Vatican statement said Francis is hoping to help heal the divisions that the El Bosque scandal has created in Chile's church and help rebuild healthy relationships between the priests and their flock "once they become conscious of their own wounds."
El Bosque generated some 30 priests and four bishops before Karadima was removed from ministry and a priestly society affiliated with El Bosque was closed. The recent eruption of the scandal has focused on one of the four bishops, Juan Barros, after Francis strongly defended him only to then admit he had made grave errors in judgment.
But Francis' meetings this weekend with priests trained by Karadima, as well as some other members of El Bosque, suggests he is trying to better understand the dynamics of a cult-like religious community where the abuse of power and spiritual abuse left lasting damage on victims even if they were not sexually molested.
The El Bosque scandal is similar to others that have recently roiled the Latin American church, including the Mexico-based Legion of Christ and the Peru-based Sodalitium. All three involved a closed, secretive religious community where a cult of personality grew around a charismatic leader whose demand for obedience and silence enabled him to sexually and psychological abuse his followers.
In a letter this week to Chile's Catholic community, Francis became the first pope to publicly refer to a "culture of abuse and cover-up" in the Catholic Church, suggesting that he is coming around to the view of victims and their advocates that the clerical culture itself is a big part of the problem.