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Vatican: Hierarchy on trial

A papal headache (Getty)

Francis has apologised over the ‘Barros affair’. But the matter is far from resolved
by Christopher Altieri

Pope Francis’s letter to the bishops of Chile, written on the Octave of Easter and released to the public last week, has been received with cautious appreciation by abuse victims. It has also set the stage for a meeting between the Pope and the Chilean bishops that ought to be the first step towards directly and decisively addressing the “Barros affair”.

The Pope’s mishandling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile, is arguably the worst crisis of his five-year pontificate. The protracted and stubborn mishandling of the case, at the highest levels of Church governance, has been a cause of deep pain and scandal ­– in both the technical and colloquial senses of the term – for Chilean believers and for the Catholic faithful throughout the world.

The latest episode began in January, during Pope Francis’s visit to Chile. That was when Francis levelled repeated allegations of calumny against abuse victims who said Bishop Barros turned a blind eye to abuse by Fr Fernando Karadima, the country’s most notorious paedophile priest. Pope Francis had moved Barros from the country’s military see to the Diocese of Osorno in early 2015, dismissing the objections of clergy and faithful who were aware of the allegations against him and concerned with his record.

The Pope went on to claim that he had no evidence against Bishop Barros – despite the proven existence of a letter written in 2014 by one of Bishop Barros’s principal accusers, Juan Carlos Cruz. Mr Cruz’s letter was apparently hand-delivered to Pope Francis by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. When the details of that letter became public, Pope Francis decided to send Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to investigate, claiming “new elements” had emerged to warrant the investigation.

If the size of the dossier Archbishop Scicluna assembled after his two-week evidence-gathering mission in February is any indication – Pope Francis says it runs to more than 3,200 pages, though neither the press nor the public have been made aware of its contents – the “Barros affair” is only the tip of the Chilean iceberg when it comes to complaints about the handling of clerical sex abuse.

That he has summoned the bishops for a meeting here in Rome in the third week of May is also a significant indicator of the extent of the crisis. The letter Pope Francis sent to the bishops of Chile does contain several elements worthy of consideration. First, there is the apology, which was general. It also expressed the Pope’s desire to meet those he has hurt personally. In the letter, the Holy Father writes: “Right now I ask forgiveness from all those I offended, and I hope to be able to do so personally in the coming weeks.”

Victims have welcomed it, but insisted that the matter is far from resolved. “The purpose of all our actions has always been about recognition, forgiveness and reparation for what has been suffered, and will continue to be so, until zero tolerance against abuse and concealment in the Church becomes a reality,” said Mr Cruz, joined by James Hamilton and José Andrés Murillo.

The lay advocacy group Laicos de Osorno also issued a statement calling for more specific action. “Since 2015,” Laicos said, “we have been denouncing the work of disinformation that the apostolic nuncio [Archbishop Ivo Scapolo], several bishops and not a few lay people close to them have carried out systematically. They must pay the price.” Included among those bishops may be counted the current and former Archbishops of Santiago, respectively Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati and Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz. (The latter is a member of the Pope’s “C9”, or Council of Cardinals.)

Laicos added: “The Pope also has to answer why their opinions were of such weight, recognising that, at the same time, other bishops, priests, lay people and [other of] his friends [eg, the aforementioned Cardinal O’Malley] gave him truthful information that he decided to discard.”

This is the crux of the matter. The Holy Father says his misapprehension of the gravity of the crisis owed itself to a lack of reliable data. “I acknowledge, and I want you [bishops] faithfully to convey it as such, that I have made serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of the situation,” Pope Francis wrote, “especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information.”

If he had Mr Cruz’s letter, it is difficult if not impossible to understand how that is true. It is one thing not to have information. It is very much another thing to have it, and to disregard it.

In any case, the appearance of the letter guarantees that the eyes of the Church and the world shall be on Rome when the bishops of Chile gather there in the second half of May to discuss the crisis with Pope Francis. Meanwhile, Cardinal Errázuriz remains a member of the C9, Cardinal Ezzati remains in Santiago, Archbishop Scapolo remains Nuncio to Chile, and Bishop Barros – despite his having submitted his resignation on several occasions – is still in his see.