The news that the Vatican has dispatched the Archbishop of Malta to Chile to deal with the case of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno is astonishing. It represents a complete volte-face on the part of the authorities in Rome.
Until very recently, no less a person than Pope Francis himself was telling us that there was no Barros case, and that the whole affair was the work of “leftists”, and that any accusations against Barros were calumny. Now, as the Italians love to say, cambia la melodia – the mood music has changed: it seems that new facts have come to light and there is something to be investigated after all.
Archbishop Scicluna of Malta is one of the few men high up in the Church hierarchy who has some credibility when it comes to dealing with child abuse. The fact that he is being sent means the Vatican recognises the Barros case as important, indeed urgent; one could see this as, in fact, a sign of panic after a long period of denial and indolence. Let us remember that Barros was made Bishop of Osorno back in March 2015. Since then protests have not let up. Yet it has taken three years for the Vatican to realise that it has a serious problem in Osorno.
And how serious! Barros was a bishop (of the Chilean armed forces) before the Osorno appointment. Osorno is a tiny diocese of 22 parishes, 800 miles from Santiago, and perhaps they thought that it was a good place to bury an embarrassing prelate. If that were so, it was a terrible miscalculation, and reveals that whoever was behind the Osorno appointment simply does not realise how toxic child abuse is for the Catholic Church. But they do now, or should do, given that the Osorno saga has not gone away, much as they might have hoped it to.
Moreover, the Osorno case has damaged the entire Chilean Church. One would very much like to know the pastoral statistics for Osorno and for Chile as a while. Everything one hears suggests that they are not encouraging.
Naturally, one does not want to prejudge the outcome of Archbishop Scicluna’s mission, but it is clearly going to be one of damage limitation, and it represents, sadly, too little too late. The appointment of Bishop Barros in Osorno was a huge unforced error. Even if Bishop Barros is removed, as I hope he will be, damage has been done. In every parish in the world priests will find their task of gaining people’s trust that little bit more difficult thanks to the Barros case.
One might well ask why is Archbishop Scicluna being sent in now? The official explanation is that something new has come to light. The real explanation may be that those defending Barros in high places have suddenly decided that the battle is lost and are now looking for an exit strategy. This, in turn, means that those who have been discretely pushing for something to be done about Barros have won the argument. Chief of these people must be Cardinal O’Malley who broke cover after the Pope’s return from Chile with an unprecedented intervention. When O’Malley spoke, something happened, the dam gave way, action was taken.
The Cardinal of Boston is clearly the one to listen to. And from now on, the one to watch.