For Pope Francis, a long honeymoon has ended. For nearly five years since his election in March 2013, the pontiff had enjoyed almost uniformly favorable coverage in the secular media, in spite of heated controversies within the Catholic Church. But in recent weeks reporters have begun to examine his pontificate with a critical eye, primarily because of mounting evidence that the pope has blundered in his handling of a sex-abuse scandal.

Pope Francis has consistently said all the right things about the abuse question, promising to maintain a “zero-tolerance” policy and to hold bishops accountable for their handling of abuse complaints. But in practice the pontiff has tolerated and even promoted prelates with seriously flawed records on the issue. That pattern of behavior came into focus in January, when Francis made an apostolic visit to Chile.

While he was in Chile, the pope met with sex-abuse victims and issued a public apology to all who have suffered. But he did not meet with any of the many victims of Fr. Fernando Karadima, the country’s most famous predator-priest. And on the same day that the pope issued his apology, he concelebrated a public Mass with Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, a protégé of Karadima, whose 2015 appointment as head of the Osorno diocese was—and still is—the subject of a bitter dispute.

Karadima, once an enormously influential figure in the Chilean Church, has denied that he molested young men. But a Chilean court found otherwise, ruling in 2011 that only the statute of limitations saved him from a guilty verdict. In Rome, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also found him guilty of gross misconduct, and in 2011 suspended him from ministry. Karadima, then 85 years old, was ordered to spend the remainder of his life in prayer and penance.

When these decisions were rendered against Karadima, Bishop Barros—who was then responsible for Chile’s Catholic military chaplains—said that he was unaware of his old mentor’s misconduct. “I never had knowledge of, or could have imagined, the serious abuses that this priest committed against his victims,” the bishop said.

Some victims testified otherwise, insisting that Barros was fully aware of Karadima’s romps with adolescents. And even if the bishop’s denial was fully accurate, his ignorance should have weighed heavily against his promotion. Marie Collins, then a member of a special papal commission on abuse, remarked that Bishop Barros ought to have recognized the tell-tale signs of abuse. “And if he doesn’t understand child abuse,” she said, “there’s a child-protection concern about him being in charge of a diocese.”

Collins made that comment because in January 2015, Pope Francis had named Barros to become Bishop of Osorno. The announcement stunned and angered many Chilean Catholics. Thirty priests of the Osorno diocese signed a public protest; dozens of lawmakers added their names. A group of Karadima’s victims traveled to Rome to lodge their complaints with the papal abuse commission. The new bishop’s installation in March 2015 was marred by noisy demonstrations. But Pope Francis stood firm; Bishop Barros was his choice.

Later that year it emerged that two Chilean cardinals had defended Bishop Barros. Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati of Santiago and his predecessor, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuiz, had sent email messages to Vatican officials, urging them not to provide a forum for Karadima’s accusers. (The intervention by Cardinal Errazuiz was particularly significant because although he is now retired, he remains a member of the 9-man Council of Cardinals, the pope’s top advisory group.) The cardinals’ arguments evidently persuaded Pope Francis. In October 2015, a visitor to Rome captured a video of an angry pontiff complaining that the charges against Bishop Barros were “unfounded allegations of the leftists,” and wondering aloud why the Chilean public accepted the “garbage everybody says.”

And there matters stood, for more than a year. The Barros appointment was unpopular, but the pope insisted that there was no evidence to suggest that the bishop was unfit. Then in January of this year, just before the pontiff began his trip to South America, the Associated Press dropped a bomb, revealing that when he made the Osorno appointment, the pope had been fully aware of the complaints against Barros.

In a January 2015 letter to a group of Chilean bishops, which AP made public, the pope revealed that during the previous year, his apostolic nuncio in Chile had encouraged Bishop Barros to resign from his duties as bishop for the country’s armed forces and take a leave of absence, in order to ease the protests roused by his close ties to Karadima. But Barros had not resigned; instead the pontiff had promoted him.

The AP story rekindled the controversy over the Barros appointment, and questions about it dogged the pontiff during his South American tour. When he met with reporters during his return flight to Rome on January 22, Pope Francis faced several questions about his unswerving support for Bishop Barros. He remained adamant. “I cannot condemn him without evidence,” the pope said, even saying that charges against the Chilean bishop were slanderous. He acknowledged that he was aware of complaints against Barros, but said that the people making those complaints “didn’t present themselves.”

The reporters who heard these words were nonplussed. Was the pontiff really suggesting that he would not believe complaints unless they were accompanied by conclusive evidence? Such clear evidence is notoriously hard to find in abuse cases, when one person’s charge is met with another person’s denial. Abuse victims and their public advocates—not just in Chile but around the world—saw the pope’s statements as a return to old, unhealthy clerical attitudes that gave short shrift to complaints of priestly misconduct. Even Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of the pope’s closest advisers and chairman of the papal commission on abuse, was moved to say that the pope’s in-flight comments “were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator.”

Finally, as January came to a close, the Vatican announced that the pope had commissioned Archbishop Charles Scicluna, once the Holy See’s top prosecutor in sex-abuse cases, to look into the complaints against Bishop Barros. The Vatican explained that this investigation—which critics of Barros had been requesting for many months—was now timely because of “recently received information.”

Then on February 5, the Associated Press dropped another bomb. Although some “recently received information” might have arrived this January, Pope Francis had been hand-delivered a long letter, detailing the charges against Bishop Barros, two years earlier. Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Karadima’s victims, had written to claim that Barros was an eyewitness when Karadima molested him. The Cruz letter was presented to the papal abuse commission, whose chairman, Cardinal O’Malley, reported in April 2015 that he had placed the letter in the pope’s hands. Nearly two years later, Pope Francis was telling reporters that he had not seen solid evidence. Was he suggesting that Cruz’s testimony had not impressed him? Or that he had not read the letter that Cardinal O’Malley had given him? Neither explanation would be reassuring to those who expect the pope to crack down on abusive priests and negligent bishops.

Later this month Archbishop Scicluna, who has a reputation as a relentless investigator, will interview Juan Carlos Cruz in New York, then travel to Chile to speak with other witnesses. If he finds that Barros willfully ignored Karadima’s misconduct, the embattled bishop will probably be asked to resign. But even if the investigation yields no compelling evidence, reporters will continue to question why Pope Francis so stubbornly supported a prelate whose background, at a minimum, exposed him to suspicions.

Nor will reporters be alone in asking those questions. Last December, the pope’s special commission on abuse completed its four-year mandate. Three members of that commission resigned before their terms expired, and its chairman was forced to distance himself from the pope’s public remarks. The Vatican is likely to have trouble recruiting new members for the commission until Pope Francis demonstrates that his commitment to rooting out sexual abuse matches his rhetoric.

Philip F. Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading his Flock, due for publication later this month.

Photo by Aleteia Image Department via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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