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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis admitted Wednesday that 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 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, when Vatican intervention is urgently required, 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 protegé 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 that they present "proof" of their claims and revealed that 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 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."
Karadima was a charismatic preacher who was removed from the 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 defense 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 that 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.