Has Pope Francis boxed himself in over Bishop Barros?

Cardinal Errázuriz: the Pope’s most senior adviser on Chile (Getty)

With the sheer number of episcopal appointments that the Holy See has to make, month after relentless month, it is wholly unremarkable that on occasion there is a major foul up.

One thinks of the most important appointment in one of the most Catholic countries in the world. In December 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Stanisław Wielgus the Archbishop of Warsaw. An uproar ensued over accusations that Wielgus had collaborated with the secret police during the communist era. He was thus installed in a private ceremony early in January, and resigned the following morning, the day before his installation had been originally scheduled.

Dramatic and embarrassing? Certainly, but a new archbishop was found and the unpleasantness passed.

Benedict had another case of lesser importance. In 2009 he appointed Fr Gerhard Maria Wagner to be the new auxiliary bishop of the Austrian diocese of Linz. Many priests and lay people vigorously protested that Wagner was pastorally unsuitable. After two weeks he asked the Holy Father to rescind the nomination, and the Pope did so.

So it is possible to make a mistake, realise it and correct it with a timely resignation – offered or invited – from the man appointed.

Why then did Pope Francis not accept the twice-offered resignation of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile? The abuse cover-up controversy around him was so bad as to mar his installation with violence in the cathedral. He could easily have insisted on his innocence, but offered to go quietly for the peace of the diocese.

Pope Francis refused that option, because he said it would be an injustice to an innocent man, or at least a man entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Yet last year, two underground bishops in China were asked to resign their offices – despite years of fidelity in the face of persecution – in order to make way for state-sanctioned bishops. The resignations were part of a proposed deal to regularise relations between the Vatican and Beijing.

And a few weeks ago the incredible situation in Ahiara, Nigeria, was resolved with the resignation of an innocent man, Bishop Peter Okpaleke. He had been appointed bishop in December 2012, in the last months of Benedict’s papacy. His appointment was met with massive resistance from the priests of Ahiara because they preferred to have a bishop of their own tribe. He was consecrated outside his diocese and never took possession of it.

Last summer, Pope Francis insisted that all of the priests write to him personally to renounce his opposition, beg for forgiveness and promise to accept the bishop, under threat of suspension otherwise.

In mid-February, the Holy Father backed down and took the obvious route out, namely to accept the resignation of Bishop Okpaleke, on the grounds that he could neither unite nor govern his diocese. There is no suggestion that Okpaleke was guilty of anything other than being unwelcome by the Ahiara priests.

Why was the same decision not employed with Bishop Barros? The Pope has clearly decided that he will eventually go, having dispatched Archbishop Charles Scicluna to Chile to hear the accusers personally. To send Scicluna to Chile to hear the sexual abuse victims and to keep Barros on would be make matters worse still, with the implication that the victims were not credible.

That Bishop Barros will go is no longer in doubt in any reasonable scenario. But in not opting to accept his resignation earlier, Pope Francis has brought this radioactive matter into his own inner sanctum. Scicluna’s investigation is hearing not only about Barros, but also about related persons, including Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, the retired archbishop of Santiago, Chile.

Cardinal Errázuriz was in office when the Karadima sexual abuse scandal broke, the same one in which Barros is accused of not reporting what he knew. If the Scicluna investigation turns up evidence that Errázuriz engaged in a cover-up, he will report that to the Holy Father, who himself selected Cardinal Errázuriz for the Council of Cardinals, the supreme advisory body to the Pope. No other Chilean was as well placed to advise Pope Francis on how to proceed in regard to Barros.

Cardinal Errázuriz still sits on the “C9” as it is called, despite being over 80. His forced resignation from the C9 would be a further blow to the Church in Chile and a personal embarrassment to the Holy Father. It is not implausible that that might be the result of Scicluna’s work.

In not accepting the Barros resignation earlier, Pope Francis may have boxed himself into further resignations now.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the March 2nd 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here