Pope’s Defense of Chilean Bishop in Sex Abuse Scandal Causes Outrage
By Pascale Bonnefoy and Austin Ramzy
New York Times
January 19, 2018
|Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, center, during a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, far right, on Thursday near Iquique, Chile. The pope said there was “not one single piece of evidence” that Bishop Barros had protected a pedophile priest. |
A number of Chilean Catholics reacted with disappointment and anger on Friday, a day after Pope Francis spoke in defense of a bishop who they say protected a pedophile priest. The remarks, made on Thursday just before Francis left Chile for Peru, upended his efforts to rehabilitate the Catholic Church’s reputation while visiting South America.
Francis told reporters Thursday there was not a shred of evidence against Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who victims of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious priest, have accused of being complicit in his crimes.
“The day someone brings me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk,” Francis said before celebrating Mass outside the northern Chilean city of Iquique. “But there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?”
The pope’s comments set off a storm in Chile, raising questions about his commitment to repairing the damage from sexual abuse scandals and improving the decline in the church’s image and following in the traditionally devout country.
Benito Baranda, coordinator of the pope’s visit to Chile, told a radio station in Santiago that Bishop Barros “should have ceased to be bishop a long time ago.” He added: “The damage he is inflicting on the church is big.”
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Mr. Baranda, a psychologist, said that the church “never believed Karadima’s victims from the start” and that the pope’s support for the bishop “reignites the feeling of not being believed, or that they are exaggerating or being deceitful. It’s like when children say they suffer abuse but no one believes them because they are children.”
However, the president of the Chilean bishops’ conference, Msgr. Santiago Silva, said the organization would “unconditionally support” the pope’s position on Bishop Barros. “The pope told us what he wants, and he wants Monsignor Barros to continue,” Monsignor Silva said.
Alejandro Goic, the bishop of Rancagua, said that what “the pope says has extraordinary value,” but he added that “the church’s main priority should be the victims.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a group that monitors abuse cases, called the pope’s remarks “a stunning setback.”
She added: “He has just turned back the clock to the darkest days of this crisis. Who knows how many victims now will decide to stay hidden, for fear they will not be believed?”
And the government’s spokeswoman, Paula Narvaez, said on her Twitter account: “Respecting, believing and supporting victims of sexual abuse is an ethical imperative. No institutional defense can override this basic principle for a fair society, one that is empathetic with those who most need it.”
Father Karadima was convicted by the Vatican in 2011 of abusing teenage boys beginning in the 1980s, and he was ordered to lead a “life of prayer and penitence.” That year, a judge found the allegations “truthful and reliable” but dismissed a criminal case because the statute of limitations had expired.
Bishop Barros, a former military chaplain, was part of Father Karadima’s inner circle and, according to one of the victims, witnessed the priest’s advances on him.
“As if I could have taken a selfie or picture while Karadima abused me or others and Juan Barros stood there watching it all,” one of Father Karadima’s victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, wrote on Twitter.
Despite the allegations against Father Barros, Francis appointed him bishop of Osorno, in southern Chile, in 2015. Dozens of priests and legislators said they opposed the move.
The pope told a group of tourists visiting Vatican City in 2015 that people in Orsono who protested the appointment were “dumb.”
“The Osorno community is suffering because it’s dumb,” he said, according to video recorded by one of the tourists. The city had “let its head be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof.”
This week, lay and religious groups from Osorno and Santiago, the capital, protested throughout the pope’s visit and called for action against the bishop.
But Bishop Barros has continued to enjoy the support of the Vatican, and there was no public indication that Francis was reconsidering his position. Bishop Barros participated in the pope’s ceremonies in Santiago, Iquique and the southern city of Temuco. In Iquique, Bishop Barros told reporters that Francis had offered him “words of support and affection.”
The Associated Press reported this week that Francis had acknowledged the furor over the legacy of Father Karadima in a 2015 letter to the Chilean bishop’s conference. The letter said the pope proposed Bishop Barros and two other bishops go on sabbatical before taking up any new positions, a plan that ultimately fell apart.
Francis began his visit to Chile on Tuesday morning by publicly apologizing for the sexual abuse involving the clergy, saying he felt “pained and ashamed” over the “irreparable damage” done to their victims. But he refused to meet with victims of Father Karadima.
“What the pope has done today is offensive and painful, and not only against us, but against everyone seeking to end the abuses,” James Hamilton, one of the victims, said during a news conference Thursday.
The archbishop of Santiago, Francisco Javier Errazuriz, who has been harshly criticized by Father Karadima’s victims for failing to protect them or investigate their accusations at the time, said the controversy over Bishop Barros was an “invention.”