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VATICAN CITY – The letter was graphic not just in describing how the priest kissed and fondled the boy, but also in how other priests who saw the abuse tried to hush it up. Pope Francis said recently that none of the victims had come forward to denounce the cover-up, so the news that the letter was hand-delivered to Francis in 2015 is adding fuel to one of the biggest scandals of his five-year papacy.
The Associated Press obtained the eight-page letter, written in Francis' native Spanish, and was told by both the victim who wrote it and by members of the pope's sex-abuse commission that Francis' top adviser assured them he gave it to the pope.
The pope's trip to Chile last month was marred by protests over his vigorous defense of Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring the abuse of young parishioners by the Rev. Fernando Karadima. During the trip, Francis callously dismissed accusations against Barros as "slander," seemingly unaware that victims had placed him at the scene of Karadima's crimes.
On the plane home, confronted by an AP reporter, the pope said: "You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven't seen any, because they haven't come forward."
But members of the pope's Commission for the Protection of Minors say that in April 2015, they sent a delegation to Rome specifically to hand-deliver the letter from Juan Carlos Cruz because they were alarmed by Francis' recent appointment of Barros as a diocesan bishop. Cruz's account of the abuse he suffered at Karadima's hands had helped Vatican investigators decide to remove him from ministry and sentence him in 2011 to a lifetime of "penance and prayer."
Barros was a Karadima protege, and according to Cruz and other victims, he witnessed the abuse and did nothing.
"Holy Father, it's bad enough that we suffered such tremendous pain and anguish from the sexual and psychological abuse, but the terrible mistreatment we received from our pastors is almost worse," Cruz wrote the pope.
On April 12, 2015, the members of the sex-abuse commission met with Francis' top adviser, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, explained their objections to Barros' appointment as bishop of Osorno, and gave him the letter to deliver to the pope.
"He assured us he would give it to the pope and speak of the concerns," then-commission member Marie Collins told the AP. "And at a later date, he assured us that that had been done."
Cruz, who now lives in Philadelphia, heard the same.
"Cardinal O'Malley called me after the pope's visit here in Philadelphia and he told me, among other things, that he had given the letter to the pope — in his hands," he said in an interview at his home Sunday.
Neither the Vatican nor O'Malley responded to multiple requests for comment.
After Francis' comments backing Barros caused such an outcry in Chile, he was forced last week to do an about-face: The Vatican announced it was sending in its most respected sex-crimes investigator to take testimony from Cruz and others about Barros.
In the letter to the pope, Cruz described how Karadima would kiss Barros and fondle his genitals, and do the same with younger priests and teens.
"More difficult and tough was when we were in Karadima's room and Juan Barros — if he wasn't kissing Karadima — would watch when Karadima would touch us — the minors — and make us kiss him, saying: 'Put your mouth near mine and stick out your tongue.' He would stick his out and kiss us with his tongue," Cruz told the pope. "Juan Barros was a witness to all this innumerable times, not just with me but with others as well."
Barros has repeatedly denied witnessing any abuse or covering it up. "I never knew anything about, nor ever imagined, the serious abuses which that priest committed against the victims," he told the AP recently. "I have never approved of nor participated in such serious, dishonest acts, and I have never been convicted by any tribunal of such things."
But that's hardly the question Barros' opponents are asking — Barros was a young priest and had no authority over Karadima when the abuse was occurring. Instead, many question how a prelate who didn't recognize a priest's abuse of young boys can run a diocese where he is responsible for protecting children from pedophiles.
Vergara reported from Santiago, Chile. Yvonne Lee in Philadelphia and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.