The Philly man who survived sexual abuse by a priest, and the pope who asked for his forgiveness

Juan Carlos Cruz, of Center City, met with Pope Francis at Vatican to discuss Cruz’s experience as a survivor of sexual abuse by the Rev. Fernando Karadima in Chile.

Juan Carlos Cruz risked upending his life as a Philadelphia executive to speak out about the trauma he had spent decades trying to forget. He went so far as to write an eight-page letter to Pope Francis in 2015 recounting the alleged sexual crimes against him as a teenager and the cover-up that ensued — only to have the pontiff disbelieve him.

The abuse that he said he endured while growing up in Chile at the hands of a then-respected cleric, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, was dismissed as “slander” by the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. What hope was there for change in the church, a disheartened Cruz wondered, if the most powerful figure in Christendom refused to listen?

Earlier this year, however, the Vatican dispatched investigators to look into not only Cruz’s accusations but other reports of sexual misconduct roiling the Chilean church.  They found even the worst to be true.

So on April 29, in the private papal living room at Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City, Cruz sat face-to-face with Francis, as the pontiff pleaded for forgiveness.

“He said he had committed grave mistakes,” said Cruz, a Center City resident who works as a communications and branding executive at DuPont in Wilmington. “Who am I not to give this man a second chance?”

The meeting also yielded an unexpected and groundbreaking statement from the pope, according to Cruz. In a discussion about one Chilean cardinal’s accusation that Cruz might have enjoyed the abuse because he was gay, Francis offered acceptance of Cruz’s homosexuality. Regardless of sexual orientation, Cruz recalled the pontiff saying, “God made you. God loves you. I love you. And you should love yourself.”

Cruz did not interpret those words as a forthcoming change in church teaching. They were important only “to who I am,” he said.

But Michael Rocks, president of Dignity/Philadelphia, an advocate for LGBT rights in the Catholic Church, asserted that the sentiment expressed by the pope does have larger significance.

“The whole notion that homosexuality is a disorder and morally wrong — I think the pope basically wiped that out,” Rocks said. “By saying the pope loves you, you should love yourself, and God made you this way, that is the critical statement. God made you.”

The Vatican has not commented on the pope’s remarks as recounted by Cruz. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia declined to comment because local leaders were not involved in the meeting. But Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has called the comments a reflection of traditional Catholic teaching.

“Jesus would have said that,” Dolan said during his satellite radio show on the Catholic Channel. Even though “sexual expression outside of a man and woman in marriage is contrary to God’s purpose,” every person should be treated with dignity and respect.

At the Vatican, Cruz was joined by James Hamilton, a surgeon, and Jose Andres Murillo, a philosopher, both of whom live in Chile and also have been on a mission to share their experiences of abuse by Karadima and demand accountability from the Catholic hierarchy.

Cruz predicts seismic upheaval for the Chilean church. Its 31 active bishops have offered their resignations as the result of a scorching 2,300-page report written by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a top Vatican investigator of sexual abuse.  Although no official action has yet been taken, Cruz said he hopes that Francis “will start firing [them] soon. The pope listened to us. He held people accountable, and this brings hope to survivors around the world.”

John Salveson, of Bryn Mawr, a survivor of priest molestation who runs the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, described Cruz as “a brave person who has done an enormous service to a church that treated him so badly” and has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness and inability “to police itself.”

Cruz has been on his crusade since 2009, when Hamilton told him that he knew what had happened to him. Both had been members of El Bosque, the parish of Karadima, a charismatic priest who helped train young people for the priesthood. Hamilton and Murillo had previously spoken out in Chile, but to no avail. They wanted Cruz to stand beside them in a joint effort to stop the monstrous cleric and end the cover-up.

Cruz grew up in Santiago, the oldest of three sons of a banker and a homemaker. When his father died suddenly at age 39, the family was devastated. Cruz, then 15, sought guidance from the church and, specifically, Karadima, whom many referred to as a saint.

It was during a confession that the abuse started, he said, calling it “paralyzing, horrifying.” Another priest, the Rev. Juan Barros, had witnessed some of it, he added.

Cruz remained a part of the parish, and the object of molestation, for eight years. “It’s hard for me to come to grips with this,” he said. “I consider myself semi-intelligent. I’ve worked for national corporations, but at that age, I was broken, and that man took advantage of me.”

He went on to study journalism and work at a Santiago TV station. Fifteen years ago, partly to escape the nightmarish memories, he emigrated to the United States.

When Cruz, Hamilton, and Murillo began speaking out in 2009, they were interviewed by journalists in Chile, met with church officials, and filed criminal and civil complaints against Karadima. In 2011, Karadima was found guilty by a church tribunal and sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in prayer and penitence. He currently lives in a nursing home in Chile. The allegations in the criminal complaint were found to be credible by a Chilean judge, but the statute of limitations had run out. The ruling is being appealed.  The civil suit is pending.

In 2015, Francis appointed Barros as bishop of the town of Osorno, prompting an outcry from that region’s Catholics. Barros had protected and covered up abuse, they charged. By then, Cruz had moved to Philadelphia and begun working at DuPont. He wrote a letter describing his experience with Karadima that was hand-delivered to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors. O’Malley was to give the letter to the pope. Cruz heard about the delivery but nothing afterward.

In January, the pope visited Chile amid protests against Barros. The pontiff claimed he had never seen any evidence or complaints about his new bishop and branded the allegations from survivors as “calumny.”  But shortly after the trip, the Associated Press printed Cruz’s 2015 letter with a picture of O’Malley receiving it. The pope sent Scicluna  to investigate victims’ claims.

Cruz was interviewed by the two bishops in February at the Church of the Holy Name Jesus in New York. From there, the investigators traveled to Chile, where they interviewed a total of 70 people, producing a report that laid blame at the feet of Chile’s Catholic hierarchy. After reading it, the pope apologized publicly.

In early April, Cruz received a call from the Vatican. The pope wanted him, Hamilton, and Murillo to visit Rome. The pontiff wanted to apologize in person. The men stayed in the pope’s private residence, meeting individually with him and also as a group.

When Cruz’s turn came, he and the pontiff “talked for three hours. We laughed. I cried. He heard me,” Cruz said.

He emerged confident that the pope would take action, and that the visit was not a public relations exercise.

“I feel like I was representing so many men and women of different ages, even some who have committed suicide, who are sick and tired of waiting, who walk around with this shame inside their bodies. We brought their pain with us,” he said. “We want to make this the beginning of the end of this culture of abuse.”