Pope's Zero Tolerance for Bishops Who Covered for Pedophiles Faces Tough Test in Chile
By Eva Vergara
March 16, 2015
|In this April 8, 2011 photo, Bishop Juan Barros arrives to the Episcopal Conference of Chile in El Quisco, Chile. Barros has been tapped by Pope Francis to become bishop of a southern Chilean diocese in March 2015, provoking an unprecedented outcry by abuse victims and Catholic faithful who contend he covered up sexual abuse committed by his mentor and superior, Rev. Fernando Karadima, in the 1980s and 90s. Barros has declined to comment publicly on allegations against him. (AP Photo/La Tercera) |
Juan Carlos Cruz recalls that he and another teen boy would lie down on the priest's bed, one resting his head at the man's shoulder, another sitting near his feet. The priest would kiss the boys and grope them, he said, all while the Rev. Juan Barros watched.
"Barros was there, and he saw it all," Cruz, now a 51-year-old journalist, told The Associated Press.
Barros has been tapped by Pope Francis to become bishop of a southern Chilean diocese this month, provoking an unprecedented outcry by abuse victims and Catholic faithful who contend he covered up sexual abuse committed by his mentor and superior, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, in the 1980s and '90s. A Vatican investigation found Karadima guilty in 2011 and sentenced the now 84-year-old priest to a cloistered life of "penitence and prayer" for what is Chile's highest-profile case of abuse by a priest.
Barros had long declined to comment publicly on allegations against him. However, in a letter sent Monday to the priests of the diocese he'll be overseeing, he said he did not know about Karadima's abuses when they happened.
"I never had knowledge of, or could have imagined, the serious abuses that this priest committed against the victims," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the AP.
Now bishop for Chile's armed forces, he has said he learned of Karadima's abuse through a 2010 news report he saw on television, according to court records.
While not directly accused of abuse, Barros is said by at least three victims to have witnessed the sexual molestation at the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, part of the El Bosque parish that serves an affluent neighborhood of Santiago.
That history has parishioners, clergy and lawmakers in this predominantly Catholic country protesting the pope's decision to appoint Barros, 58, to become spiritual leader over the diocese in Osorno, about 580 miles (930 kilometers) south of Santiago.
More than 1,300 church members in Osorno, along with some 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, which was announced in January and is set to take effect on March 21.
They have not heard back and Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi declined to comment on the matter.
Numerous attempts to reach Barros were not successful; nor has he responded to the victims' accusations or the outcry over his appointment.
The Rev. Peter Kleigel, deputy pastor of the Sacred Heart parish in Osorno, is among those vocally opposing Barros' arrival.
"We're convinced that this appointment is not correct because, following canon law, a bishop must be well-regarded," he told the AP. "We need a bishop who's credible."
Such complaints come even as Francis said this month that a minster needs not only God's blessing, but the blessing of "his people" to do his work.
The controversy is being watched by victims, advocacy groups and others as a test of whether Francis will meet their demands to hold bishops accountable for having ignored or covered up wrongdoing by priests.
Anne Barrett Doyle from BishopAccountability.org, an online resource about abusive priests and complicit bishops, called the appointment "bafflingly inconsistent" with Francis' promise to root out abuse.
"The pope should have suspended and investigated Barros, not given him another diocese to run," Barrett Doyle said in an email to the AP.
Karadima led the parish of El Bosque for nearly six decades before allegations came to light in April 2010, when a news investigation into the abuse was broadcast on state television. Two months later, the archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, forwarded the allegations to the Vatican amid an eruption of abuse cases globally.