Saturday, February 10, 2018
The Pope’s integrity is in question
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The Barros crisis
The affair of the Chilean bishop accused of covering up serious sexual abuse is indeed a tangled web. If the central player in the story was anyone other than Pope Francis – for instance a local politician – the easiest explanation of the sequence of events now emerging would be that that person was lying – and was also stupid, as the lie would almost certainly be found out. In the case of Pope Francis, neither possibility seems plausible.
Indeed, if he had anything to hide, assigning Archbishop Charles Scicluna to conduct a special investigation into the case would be like putting his head into the lion’s mouth. Before his appointment as Archbishop of Malta, Archbishop Scicluna was the chief Vatican prosecutor in cases of Catholic clergy accused of the sexual abuse of children. If anyone can unravel this business without fear or favour, it is he.
The key figure in the affair is a Chilean layman called Juan Carlos Cruz. As a young man he was a member of an almost cult-like circle gathered round Fr Fernando Karadima, who was as sexually corrupt as he was charismatic. Cruz wrote a long letter to the Pope in 2015 setting out the abuse he had personally experienced and witnessed at the hands of Father Karadima. He said another member of the group, a young priest called Juan Barros, had witnessed the abuse in a similar way. Allegations included kissing and fondling, including touching genitals. Despite protests, in 2015 Juan Barros was appointed by Pope Francis as Bishop of Osorno in southern Chile. He has since offered to resign but his resignation was refused by the Pope.
Father Karadima was clearly guilty. When it was brought to the attention of the church authorities in Rome, he was severely sanctioned. Bishop Barros has denied any involvement in the matter, which is why allegations arose that he was at least complicit in a cover-up. Some of his fellow bishops have backed him, and Pope Francis may have relied on that. But much of Chilean public opinion is not impressed. The rest of the world, which has viewed Pope Francis favourably till now, is wondering if he has feet of clay.
The heart of the matter concerns what happened after Señor Cruz’s letter was passed to four members of the commission on sexual abuse set up by Pope Francis, who gave it to Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the commission’s chairman. He later confirmed he had given the letter to the Pope. Yet Pope Francis has denied being aware of any evidence against Bishop Barros. When in Chile on a papal visit recently, he accused those making these allegations of baseless calumny. He could not act without proof, he said. Cardinal O’Malley promptly protested, saying the Pope’s words were “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse”. The Pope later corrected himself, saying when he said he lacked “proof” he meant “evidence”. But the evidence does exist, and was handed to him. How can Pope Francis claim he did not know about it? This is no longer just about Bishop Barros. The Pope’s own reputation is at risk.