VATICAN CITY — The Vatican said Thursday that Pope Francis' apology to Chilean sex abuse victims and his request that the country's bishops come to Rome to discuss reforms amounts to a "spiritual state of emergency" declaration for the Chilean Catholic church.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis' letter to the Chilean hierarchy was an acknowledgment that he had made mistakes about abuse victims and that "yes, we believe you, you have your place in the church."
In the letter Wednesday, Francis admitted he had made "grave errors" in evaluating the case of a bishop accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse. He invited the victims to Rome so he could personally apologize.
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.
But Francis had plenty of factual information at his disposal that he apparently did not take into account: The executive committee of Chile's bishops conference had recommended Barros resign and take a sabbatical. Members of Francis' own sex abuse advisory commission had questioned Barros' suitability to run a diocese. Francis himself received a personal letter from a victim in 2015 detailing Barros' wrongdoing.
Asked about that previous information, Burke said Francis receives a lot of information from a variety of sources and now he has read a 2,300-page dossier prepared by two Vatican-mandated envoys.
"Let's just say it's very clear now the pope has a complete picture of the situation," Burke said.
In the letter, Francis announced he was summoning all 32 Chilean bishops to the Vatican for an emergency meeting to discuss short, medium and long-term changes in the local 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 and in 2010 when Irish bishops received a Vatican dressing down for their botched handling of abuse cases.
"He is sort of calling a spiritual state of emergency, which shows how seriously he takes the situation," Burke said.
After their 2002 Vatican brow-beating, the U.S. bishops adopted a comprehensive "one-strike-and-you're-out" policy for abusive clergy and committed to enforcing strict child protection policies.
It's unclear what changes Francis has in mind for the Chilean church. As it is now, there are five Chilean dioceses that need new bishops, including Santiago, where Cardinal Riccardo Ezzati, 76, is ready to retire.
On Thursday, Ezzati announced he was convening all the diocese' priests for a special meeting April 19 to discuss Francis' "courageous" letter and hear proposals for change.
If Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops were to also resign, Francis would have the chance to remake the Chilean church hierarchy — a that reform victims have long called for.
They say the Barros affair is emblematic of a culture in the Chilean church that covers up for abusers and discredits victims to protect the church's reputation and assets.