Incredulity over Francis’s approval of Chilean bishop Juan Barros, who is alleged to have covered up for a notorious South American pedophile
Several members of Pope Francis’s sex abuse advisory board have expressed concern and incredulity over his decision to appoint a Chilean bishop to a diocese despite allegations that he covered up for the South American nation’s most notorious pedophile.
In interviews and emails with Associated Press, the experts have questioned the pope’s pledge to hold bishops accountable and keep children safe, given the record of Bishop Juan Barros in the case of the Rev Fernando Karadima.
The five commission members spoke to AP in their personal and professional capacities and stressed that they were not speaking on behalf of the commission, which Francis formed in late 2013 and named Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, to head.
“I am very worried,” said Dr Catherine Bonnet, a commission member, French child psychiatrist and author on child sex abuse. “Although the commission members cannot intervene with individual cases, I would like to meet with Cardinal O’Malley and other members of the commission to discuss a way to pass over our concerns to Pope Francis.”
Another commission member, Marie Collins, herself a survivor of abuse, said she could not understand how Francis could have appointed Barros, given the concerns about his behavior.
“It goes completely against what he [Francis] has said in the past about those who protect abusers,” Collins told AP. “The voice of the survivors is being ignored, the concerns of the people and many clergy in Chile are being ignored, and the safety of children in this diocese is being left in the hands of a bishop about whom there are grave concerns for his commitment to child protection.”
Barros was installed as bishop of the southern Chilean diocese of Osorno last weekend amid unprecedented opposition, and scuffles inside the cathedral by protesters who say he is unfit to lead. The demonstrators point to his close association with Karadima, a charismatic and popular priest who was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011 for sexually abusing minors.
Three of Karadima’s victims told AP this month that Barros witnessed the abuse decades ago at the Sacred Heart of Jesus church in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and that he did nothing. They accused Barros of destroying a letter detailing allegations against Karadima that was sent to the then bishop in 1982.
Barros had long refused to comment publicly on the allegations, but on the eve of his installation insisted he did not know about any abuse until he read about the allegations in 2010 news reports.
Barros’s appointment in January sparked unprecedented opposition, in a country that is slowly coming to grips with the church sex abuse crisis that has afflicted the US, Europe and Australia in particular. More than 1,300 church members in Osorno, along with 30 priests from the diocese and 51 of Chile’s 120 members of parliament, sent letters to Francis in February urging him to rescind the appointment.
To no avail. On the eve of the 21 March installation, the Vatican embassy in Chile issued a statement expressing its full “confidence and support” in Barros and urging the church in Chile to show a spirit of “faith as well as communion” by accepting Barros as the new Osorno bishop.
His installation, however, was a scene of utter chaos, with protesters entering the cathedral, pushing and shoving and nearly coming to blows as Barros tried to walk down the aisle. Most of the diocese’s priests boycotted the event, an almost unheard-of vote of no confidence in a new bishop.
The appointment has divided Chile’s bishops’ conference, and it remains to be seen if Barros will be able to effectively govern. That said, the Holy See is loth to be bullied by popular opinion, although Francis has shown himself willing to remove bishops who have divided their local church or caused scandal.
The issue is particularly delicate for Francis, who would have known well the Karadima scandal when it broke in 2010, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires in neighbouring Argentina. The scandal implicated his friend, the then archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, who admitted that he shelved an investigation into Karadima in 2005 but reopened it in 2010 as the global abuse crisis was erupting.
Francis has since made Errázuriz a member of his group of nine core cardinal advisers. Any wavering by Francis on the Barros appointment could open a Pandora’s box of renewed allegations against Errázuriz and others in the Chilean church hierarchy who dismissed allegations from victims and instead stood by Karadima.
Commission member Baroness Sheila Hollins, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist and life peer in Britain’s House of Lords, said accountability regardless of role or rank must be enforced when it comes to children being sexually abused.
“The hierarchical rank of the perpetrator must be of no consequence in evaluating the facts,” she said. “The crime of sexual violation against children and minors transcends both rank and role.”