During hours of emotional meetings at the Vatican, Pope Francis begged for forgiveness from Chileans alleging priestly sexual abuse — according to those in attendance — who described their meeting with the pontiff as a "defining moment" in his papacy and demanded that he follow through by ousting Chilean bishops they accuse of coverups.
"I have never seen someone so contrite. He was truly sorry, and I felt he was hurting," said Juan Carlos Cruz, one of three people invited to sit down with the pope over the weekend for individual meetings. "He said, 'I was part of the problem. I caused this,' " said Cruz, who called his three-hour meeting with Francis "very raw."
The three men allege they endured sexual abuse as youths in Chile at the hands of prelate Fernando Karadima, who was sentenced by the Vatican in 2011 to a lifetime of penance, which means he's been forced to retire from public life and public ministry to a life of prayer for atonement.
The Vatican did not, however, believe the men's claim that the abuse was witnessed and covered up by Chilean Bishop Juan Barros. Francis appointed Barros bishop of the town of Osorno in 2015, hugged him publicly during his visit to Chile in January and dismissed the men's accounts as "slander."
But as public fury in Chile grew, Francis drastically changed course last month, dispatching an abuse investigator to interview the men, inviting them to Rome, admitting he had made "serious mistakes" and summoning Chilean bishops to Rome later this month for a dressing down.
"For almost 10 years we have been treated as enemies because we fight against sexual abuse and coverup in the church," the three men said in a statement released as they met reporters in Rome. "These days we met the friendly face of the church," they added.
In a letter sent to Chilean bishops last month, Francis announced he felt "pain and shame" over the men's accounts and said he wanted to "apologize to all those I have offended."
A Vatican spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Critics of Francis' track record on halting abuse in the church say his blind spot in Chile proves he still "doesn't get it."
Jose Andres Murillo, one of the accusers, said he saw a shift in Francis' attitude when the pope told him that "abuse is not a sin, but corruption."
In their statement, the three men said, "We spoke with the pope about the pathological and unlimited exercise in power which is the cornerstone of sexual abuse and coverup."
During the "intense and long hours of conversation," they said Francis asked them to come up with ideas for putting things right.
James Hamilton, another of the accusers, told reporters one of the pope's closest advisors, Chilean Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, was "a real criminal" who deserved to be in jail.
The cardinal has long cast doubt on the accounts of the Chilean men and is suspected of influencing Francis.
"Errazuriz covered up Karadima's abuse for five years," said Hamilton, who is a surgeon in Santiago, the Chilean capital.
Hamilton said if the pope meant business, he should remove Errazuriz from his so-called C9 committee of cardinals advising him on Vatican reform.
"That is my expectation," he said. "I would also love him to remove many bishops. This is a defining moment of his papacy."
Hamilton said he will be watching carefully when Francis summons Chile's bishops to Rome this month. Many expect that at the very least, the pope will rescind his appointment of Bishop Barros.
"We are waiting for action. We are not here for public relations," Murillo said.
Cruz said he believed Francis had been convinced by advisors over the years to be suspicious of the accusers.
"I told him toxic people surrounded him, and he had been duped," he said.