The disastrous appointment of Bishop Barros could spell trouble for Pope Francis

Bishop Juan Barros attends his first Mass at the Cathedral of St Matthew in Osorno with protestors gathered in the pews (CNS)

What on earth is happening in the Diocese of Osorno, Chile? Quite a few observers are bewildered by the recent appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese.

Let us start with what happened when the newly appointed bishop was enthroned in his cathedral this Saturday last. A fight – yes, you read that correctly – broke out as His Lordship entered the cathedral, between the rival factions in the diocese, those who support the new bishop and those who oppose him.

This is hardly what you would expect to see in any church, let alone in a cathedral, let alone at the show of unity that the entry of a new bishop is supposed to be.

Moreover, one sees that no less than 30 priests and deacons of the diocese wrote to the papal nuncio to make clear to him that they did not want Bishop Barros as their bishop.

One thing is certainly clear: Bishop Barros, perhaps through no fault of his own, is a divisive figure. As bishop, he is meant to be the focus of unity. Even before he has started his time as bishop, he has failed. So, why was he appointed?

At this point things become murky. Bishop Barros was already Bishop of the Armed Forces, so this was a transfer, not a promotion. It seems he was a protégé of one Fr Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty of child abuse. While there is no suggestion that Mgr Barros is a child abuser, some allege that he was too close to Karadima and complicit in the cover up of Karadima’s crimes. He firmly denied this.

That much can be said without fear of contradiction. But why, then, did the papal nuncio, with the full consent of the Vatican, decide to move the bishop to Osorno, against the will of a large section of the people? And why is it the official Church line that this was the correct thing to do?

The Huffington Post draws several conclusions from this fracas that may or may not be correct. The appointment may well be an indication that Bishop Barros has powerful and important friends in high places, both in Chile and in Rome.

But it may be a simple miscalculation on the part of the Church, namely, that moving the bishop to Osorno would be something that would attract little notice. (It is, from what I can determine, a pretty small diocese.) If that is the case, how wrong that calculation proved to be.

The best commentary I have read on the matter comes from the ever-excellent John Allen and can be read here.

My own reflections are as follows.

First, someone, somewhere, the person with whom the idea of this appointment originated, simply does not get it. Anyone perceived to have a poor record on clerical abuse is toxic. Any attempt to place someone like Bishop Barros over a diocese is going to lead to a strong reaction. This should have been foreseen. Which leads to the question: given that this was such a huge unforced error, where were the checks and balances that should have kicked in and effectively stopped this appointment getting beyond the very first stage?

So what we have here, not for the first time, is clear evidence that the process of consultation that leads to the appointment of bishops is not working.

Secondly, the Vatican has set up a child protection commission. This was seen as a hopeful sign. But if you are going to have a commission that you yourself set up, you have to take its advice seriously. There is now the serious risk that the Pope will lose the confidence of his own commission, for several members of it are not happy. This would be catastrophic.

Allen puts it better than I could:

The Barros situation is worrying for Francis because members of his own anti-abuse commission have broken ranks, including the two abuse survivors on the panel: Marie Collins of Ireland and Peter Saunders of the United Kingdom. It’s not clear if Francis fully grasped this at the time, but when he named survivors to that group, he was handing them significant control over his reputation. If Collins and Saunders were ever to walk out, saying they’d lost confidence or feeling that they’d been exploited for a PR exercise, it would have a vast media echo.

Long gone are the days when problems like these could have been solved in the corridors of power. The world is watching. My guess is that Bishop Barros will be removed sooner or later, simply because he has been handed an ungovernable diocese.

But the truth is he should never have been appointed in the first place. Can you imagine the uproar there would have been if this had happened under Benedict XVI’s watch? As it is Pope Francis still has the media onside – but that will not last forever. As Allen says, a tipping point may have been reached.