The outcry against Pope Francis’s appointment of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros—who has long been associated with a child–abusing priest—to the Diocese of Osorno, has placed the Pope’s “zero tolerance” policy against sexual abuse into question.
As Pope, Francis has taken many decisive actions against sexual abuse. He created a special Vatican Commission to combat it, and soon thereafter met with a group of victims, expressing his pain over their suffering:
I feel the gaze of Jesus, and I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons.
Francis has defrocked abusive clergymen, disciplined Catholic prelates who were believed to have covered up for them, and stripped an abusive Cardinal of all his authority. The Pope has also personally intervened in other abuse cases, ordering investigations and encouraging the public authorities to take strong action against evildoers.
Given these actions, the Pope’s decision to appoint Barros as bishop of Osorno—even as Barros has been accused of covering up sexual abuse, and of being an eyewitness to the abuse—has been a source of consternation, not least among members of Francis’s own anti-abuse Commission.
Barros was a long-time colleague and supporter of Rev. Fernando Karadima, a notorious abuser in Chile. After Karadima was first accused of sexual abuse, Barros publicly defended his friend and mentor, and reportedly “tried to discredit the victims—even after the Vatican ruled against him [Karadima]” in 2011. The Chilean Bishops Conference subsequently ordered Barros, and three other bishops who had defended Karadima, to apologize.
Once Karadima’s guilt was established, Barros denied any knowledge or involvement in the abuse, and continues to do so. His supporters say he is innocent, and is being railroaded by an angry mob, but many believe the evidence weighs against him. During his installation ceremony, as bishop of Osorno, hundreds of demonstrators stormed the cathedral, shouting, “Barros, get out of the city!” Many prominent Chileans have protested the appointment, and have appealed to the Pope to reverse it. German Father Peter Kliegel, who has served in Chile for nearly fifty years, has stated that Barros “has no credibility,” and led a petition, signed by thirty-one priests of the diocese, requesting that the Vatican rescind the appointment.
Pressed on why Francis would ever elevate such a controversial figure, especially in light of his zero tolerance policy, the Vatican responded with a curt press release: “Prior to the recent appointment of His Excellency, Msgr. Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as Bishop of Orsono, Chile, the Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find any reasons to preclude the appointment.”
But that explanation is hardly persuasive. As mentioned, the Vatican itself found Karadima guilty of sexual abuse—and at least three of Karadima’s victims claim that Barros personally witnessed the molestation. Why would the Vatican believe these victims are telling the truth about Karadima, but not about his long-time associate, Barros?
If the Holy See thinks it can ride through this controversy on the wave of the Pope’s popularity, it is mistaken. Nothing will so damage Francis and his pontificate as the perception that he is backing away from his unequivocal statements on abuse and accountability. His widely praised agenda for reform will collapse, or be seen as disingenuous.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial that faithful Catholics make their objections known, and that they ask the Holy Father to replace Barros with a bishop the local Chilean community and all the world’s faithful can fully trust.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.