News outlets around the world have reported that Pope Francis, at the end of his apostolic voyage to Chile last week, described accusations against Bishop Juan Barros Madrid of Osorno as “calumny.” A few days after making this remark, Francis issued a rare apology, acknowledging that his brusque statements had “wounded many.” This is the latest chapter in the bizarre saga of Bishop Barros, which has posed, from the beginning, the most serious challenge to Francis’s image as a pope with zero tolerance for abusers and their accomplices in the hierarchy. Francis’s blunt talk has been widely reported, and it had an immediate impact. For example, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, the popular archbishop of Boston and one of the pope’s close collaborators, issued a statement referring to the “great pain” the pope’s response had caused.
The abuse scandal in Chile centers on Fernando Karadima, a once-popular priest at an affluent parish with strong connections to the Chilean establishment. Karadima’s parish produced numerous vocations, including several bishops. According to numerous accusers, Karadima molested victims at the rectory of his parish for years. Reports were made to Church authorities as early as 2002, but little came of them. Indeed, it is alleged that the Chilean hierarchy actively disbelieved the allegations against Karadima. But such allegations cannot be ignored forever. In 2011, Karadima was finally sentenced to a lifetime of penance and prayer by the Vatican. Chilean authorities were unable to pursue criminal charges against him due to the statute of limitations.
Given Karadima’s former prominence in the Chilean Church, his disgrace has had serious ramifications, which brings us to Bishop Barros. Barros was widely seen as a protégé of Karadima, and some of Karadima’s accusers have alleged that Barros was aware of Karadima’s abuse. Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Karadima’s most vocal accusers, has alleged that Barros was more than merely aware of Karadima’s activities; Cruz has alleged that Barros actively assisted in covering up the abuse. Barros has vehemently denied the allegations and asserts that he knew nothing about Karadima’s abuses. Wading into the merits of the controversy, Francis has now declared that there was not a “shred of proof” against Barros and that the accusations against him are “all calumny.”
Francis’s remarks are the latest chapter in the controversy over Barros’s appointment as bishop of Osorno. When Barros took possession of the Osorno diocese, his inaugural Mass was packed with angry protestors. Fights broke out between the protestors and supporters of the bishop, and, ultimately, the Mass had to be cut short. In 2015, Francis, speaking to a group of tourists in St. Peter’s Square, called the Osorno community “dumb,” and suggested that its outrage at his appointment of Barros was the result of a campaign orchestrated by leftist politicians. Given Karadima’s connections to the Chilean establishment and his victims’ complaints about the unsatisfactory response, the case remains a live wire in Chile. In fact, Francis’s remark was in response to a shouted question about Barros.
It is tempting to see in Francis’s approach to the Barros case another parallel to Donald Trump. The mantra of Trump’s press operation is “fake news.” Whatever that term meant before Trump latched on to it, in Trump’s mouth it means broadly “news stories that make Donald Trump look bad or feel bad.” Trump happily declares that these stories are false and ginned up by his political enemies. Likewise, Francis has declared, perhaps with less glee than Trump, that the allegations against Barros are false and ginned up by leftist political enemies. Precisely who these enemies are is a little opaque, not least since his own sympathies seem often to be broadly with the left. Unlike Trump, though, Francis has apologized, acknowledging that his statements had offended many victims.
Even without the apology, there are signs that Francis is aware of the complexity of the Barros case. Recently, the Associated Press obtained a 2015 letter from Francis to the Chilean hierarchy, which expressed concerns about Barros’s appointment as bishop of Osorno. In the letter, Francis explained that his nuncio to Chile, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, had asked Barros to resign as bishop of Chile’s military diocese and take a year off due to his connection to the Karadima scandal. Apparently, Barros was told that two other bishops with ties to Karadima were going to be asked to do the same. When Barros resigned as bishop of the military diocese, he let the cat out of the bag with respect to the other Karadima-linked bishops. According to Francis, the revelation about the Vatican’s plans made it impossible to get Barros and the others out of the way quietly—leading to his appointment to the Osorno diocese. Greg Burke, the Holy See press secretary, declined to comment on the 2015 letter.
If the 2015 letter is genuine, it shows that, behind the blunt talk, Francis understands the concerns many Chileans have about Barros’s relationship with Karadima. But it doesn’t actually explain anything. Francis, through his nuncio, tried to get Barros out of a relatively high-profile position, but Barros’s slip about the other bishops on the same trajectory made that impossible. Francis then sent Barros to a diocese far from Santiago. Why give Barros a pastoral assignment at all? If there’s one thing we know about Francis, it’s that he has no problem sidelining prelates without giving them an appointment in keeping with their dignity. Just ask Cardinal Müller or Cardinal Burke—who were accused of nothing more serious than having reservations about the pope’s theological agenda. In his remarks apologizing for the “calumny” comment, Francis disclosed that Barros had tried to resign on a couple of occasions, but Francis had refused to accept his resignation. Francis indicated that he is convinced that Barros is innocent.
But even if Francis is morally certain that Barros is completely innocent, it is clear that Barros’s connections to Karadima make it difficult for him to function as an effective shepherd. Additionally, especially for Americans, there is something deeply concerning about seeing the pope, if the 2015 letter is to be believed, actively trying to shuffle around a potentially compromised prelate with a sabbatical followed by a new appointment. Anyone who has followed the United States’ own abuse crisis—or even seen Spotlight—knows that this was the preferred tactic of American prelates for managing compromised clerics. Regardless of Francis’s intent, it is optically a bad move.
Perhaps the Barros case is factually complicated. Perhaps Francis is right, and proof that Barros was complicit in Karadima’s abuse is simply nonexistent. But Francis’s handling of the case has long been seen—including by veteran Vatican observers like John Allen—as troublesome. He seems to have taken little interest in the concerns of the Chilean hierarchy over Barros’s appointment, and his response to the lay reaction has been dismissive. But the strength of a zero-tolerance policy is not seen in its application to clear cases, like that of Karadima; it is seen in its application to murky situations, like that of Barros.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.