‘Calumny,’ yes, but the right object?
By Dianne Williamson
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
January 20, 2018
I had to look up the word “calumny” while reading about Pope Francis’ disastrous trip to Chile, where he angered victims of clergy sexual abuse by defending a bishop accused of covering up the crimes of a fellow priest.
“There is not one shred of proof against him,” the pope told a reporter who asked about Bishop Juan Barros last week. “It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”
Crystal, Your Eminence. For the record, the word “calumny” means “the making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone’s reputation; slander.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, synonyms include “character assassination” and “evil-speaking.”
Calumny. Let that word sink it. That’s how the pope described the credible claims of victims who insist that Juan Barros did nothing to stop the Rev. Fernando Karadima from abusing dozens of minors over a decades-long period starting in the 1980s. Karadima is a notorious disgraced priest who served in the Chilean city of Osorno until he was dismissed in 2011.
His victims say Barros, Karadima’s protégé, knew about the priest’s abuse, with one man even claiming that Barros was present when Karadima groped him and another boy. Yet Barros remained silent and never reported it.
With what we know about the clergy sex scandal, is that really so hard to believe? Even here in Worcester, and in Boston and elsewhere, there was a clear pattern that bishops and clergy were aware that children were being abused by priests, yet they did nothing. But even now, rather than speak for the victims of abuse whom the pope has long purported to defend, he instead accused them of slander.
Ironically, the pope was in Chile last week to ease tensions between the church and victims of Karadima’s sexual abuse, a tall order in itself because the pontiff in 2015 appointed Barros as the Bishop of Osorno, despite strong opposition in Chile.
Now, the pope’s insistence on defending the bishop and accusing victims of slander is especially disheartening and shows, despite his promising words in the past, that he’s not much different than predecessors who sided with the institution over the many who were damaged by abuse and complicity.
The victims of Karadima are outraged, especially after the pope repeated in Chile his long-standing defense that there’s no evidence against Barros.
“As if I could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all,” wrote Juan Carlos Cruz, one of the victims. “These people are truly crazy, and the pontiff talks about atonement to the victims. Nothing has changed, and his plea for forgiveness is empty.”
Nothing has changed. Despite my deep-rooted cynicism of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, I was among those who rooted for Pope Francis after his ordination in 2013, believing he may indeed serve to usher a more inclusive church into the 21st century. In 2014 I wrote that I was heartened by his soothing words about gays, women and divorced Catholics, and encouraged that he seemed more willing to embrace the many victims wronged by years of denial about sexual abuse.
Skip Shea of Uxbridge, who was sexually abused in the 1970s, was never fooled.
“I’m not surprised,” Shea told me Friday, of the pope’s comments. “I’m just surprised that people are discouraged or shocked. This has been his pattern. He says good things but his actions never follow his words. As a survivor, I’ve seen that nothing has changed.”
As an example, Shea noted that the pope’s much-ballyhooed Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors expired last month after accomplishing little, and that a victim of sexual abuse quit the panel because no reform was forthcoming.
“It’s the same as it’s always been,” Shea said. “He floats wonderfully progressive ideas, but nothing has changed. He’d be a good politician for sure.”
Some may argue that the pope is only being fair to Barros, who has never been legally charged with anything. But this is not a court of law, and I’m unsure what sort of “proof” would lead the pope to believe the victims. These are the same victims, by the way, who were deemed “truthful and reliable” by a judge who heard testimony against Karadima in a year-long investigation.
Why would they lie? Is it any wonder why more and more people have turned their backs on the church?
The pope is on point when he uses the word “calumny” to describe this debacle. But it’s the victims who have been slandered, yet again, by a hierarchy that continues to defend its power and dismiss those who threaten it.