Pope Francis’s defence of Bishop Barros is a rare media blunder

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The storm surrounding Pope Francis’s latest defence of the embattled Chilean Bishop Barros has, following an unprecedented public correction from Cardinal Séan O’Malley and a penitent retraction from the Pope himself, begun to abate.

It is hard to discuss anything touching clerical sexual abuse with a level of dispassion, and specific cases even more so. When the matter involves such a large number of victims of a convicted abuser, as it does in this case, it’s almost impossible. But for those of us who want justice for victims and for the Church’s moral authority to be restored, and especially for those of us who wish the Pope well in his personal ministry, some evaluation of the affair needs to be made. In this specific instance, leaving aside the wider questions of Bishop Barros’s appointment in the first place, it was a deeply regrettable failure of style.

Pope Francis’s enormous media image has allowed him to command attention like few popes before him. He has a number of personal traits which play incredibly well in the age of rolling news and social media. He is spontaneous, and has little or no fear of speaking off-the-cuff, even on sensitive issues. He has a natural candor, something which shows through whenever he speaks, so that when he does address an issue, few are ever left wondering what he actually thinks. He also has a known impatience with process, formality, and what is often termed “legalism,” instead he favours what is often styled a “pastoral” approach, jumping right in to messy situations.

In some instances, these instincts have served him well. When he chooses to, he can get his message across at a volume previous popes would have struggled to reach. But his free-wheeling style can sometimes backfire, this certainly happened last week.

A number of victims of a serial sex abuser, Fr Karadima, have accused Bishop Barros of helping cover up their abuse. Despite this, Pope Francis has stood resolutely behind Barros. On Friday, he was asked again about Barros while in Chile. He responded: “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

It was a characteristically blunt response from the Pope, but it kicked off a serious, and totally understandable backlash from Fr Karadima’s victims, whom he’d effectively accused of slander.

The whole affair has drawn fresh attention to the terrible scandals of clerical sexual abuse, something which many Catholics had hoped was receding from the spotlight following serious efforts to address past failings. Ensuring that there be no repetition of horrible past events, and instilling confidence in the faithful that the matter is well in hand, is a task to which Pope Francis’s otherwise effective gifts of communication seem singularly ill-suited. As we have seen, it is not a subject which lends itself to off-the-cuff remarks.

Past failures, especially those involving bishops accused of cover-ups and collusion, were failures to follow law and proper procedure – something Benedict XVI did considerable work to correct. Pope Francis’s impatience with formal process, and his famous allergy to “doctors of the law” place him at a unique disadvantage when confronted with cases like that of Bishop Barros.

Victims of sexual abuse are only ever truly respected when their abusers are seen and treated as what they are: criminals. This extends to those accused of winking at their abuse. Convicting the guilty, and exonerating the innocent, is a legal task.

For all we know, it could be that the allegations against Bishop Barros are unfounded. But in order to make the kind of full-throated defence which the Pope made of Bishop Barros, it is not enough to say you have not seen any proof. To have any kind of credibility, there needs to be a full legal process which examines the allegations and finds them baseless.

Such a process does exist, it was Pope Francis who set it up with his motu proprio Come una madre amorevole, which established legal norms for handling allegations of negligence, especially when connected with sexual abuse. But since its issuing in June of 2016, little has been done to bring this mechanism to life. The section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which handles cases connected to sexual abuse continues to complain of a serious shortage of qualified staff and resources.

Similarly, Cardinal O’Malley’s intervention commanded headlines because he was the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – past tense, the Commission lapsed at the end of last year, and the pope has yet to renew its mandate and membership.

These examples illustrate a blind spot in the Francis pontificate, one which has dogged his sincere efforts to reform the curia and which becomes even more problematic when it touches on sexual abuse: his impatience. This Pope is very comfortable making big decisions, for example setting up the C9 Council of Cardinals, the Prefecture for the Economy, and the Commission for the Protection of Minors. But the good intentions of these institutions are doomed to stall without patient and consistent papal attention and support for the nitty-gritty of their work, and, in sweeping works of legal reform, that means lawyers.

So-called doctors of the law are, as we know, a suspect class in the Vatican right now. And even before the Francis pontificate, conscientious canonists are often saddled with the reputation of being nay-sayers. In fact, a good canonist, whether serving the Pope or a diocesan bishop, almost never says “no,” far more often their job is to say “not that way.” Pope Francis might find that his priorities and interests were served rather better if he had a few more lawyers working for him. Properly deployed he would find that they strengthen his hand, rather than tying it back.

Whether in bringing justice to victims, or reforming the curia, Pope Francis needs help. The Church is a society of more than a billion people. Governing it properly requires dedicated labourers as much as dynamic leadership. It is a great shame, and coming at an increasingly obvious cost, that those around Pope Francis have convinced him the two are mutually exclusive.