A Chilean diocese is in an uproar over a bishop who defended an abuser

Rome — A decision by Pope Francis to assign a bishop in Chile linked to one of the country’s most notorious clerical sex abusers as the new leader of a local diocese has locals gathering signatures to try to block the appointment.

Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid, previously Chile’s military chaplain, was appointed in mid-January as the new bishop of the small Osorno diocese and is scheduled to be installed on March 21.

Barros is one of four bishops mentored by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a longtime point of reference for Catholic clergy in the country. In 2011, the Vatican sentenced Karadima to a life of “penitence and prayer” after finding him guilty of pedophilia and abuse of his ecclesiastical position.

The victims of Karadima have accused Barros and three other bishops — Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic, and Horacio Valenzuela — of covering up for Karadima while he sexually abused devoted followers during the 1980s and 1990s.

The four bishops defended their mentor and tried to discredit the victims, even after the Vatican ruled against him. Although there’s no record of any formal process against the bishops under Church law, the Chilean Bishops Conference nevertheless forced the four to publicly apologize for supporting Karadima.

Since the Vatican announced the transfer of Barros to Osorno, laity in the diocese, as well as clergy and even local politicians, have written to the papal envoy in Chile to void the transfer. More than 1,000 signatures were sent to Rome, but to date there’s been no signal the move is under reconsideration.

Some observers have seen the appointment by Francis as a demotion for Barros, since he leaves oversight of a national army with more than 123,000 soldiers to serve in a minor city with just 145,475 inhabitants.

Nevertheless, German Rev. Peter Kliegel, who serves in Osorno, fears that the Church will lose credibility if Barros takes over. He voiced fear that the installation Mass will be “an enormous scandal.”

“It’ll be a sad spectacle for Osorno and a shame for the Church. The laity is on watch, and I believe they have the right to be so,” Kliegel told Crux via e-mail.

“Some of them will be enemies of the Church, taking advantage of the moment. But others will be faithful Catholics who love the Church,” he said.

Kliegel made headlines in Chile last January for sending a letter to the papal envoy, Italian Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, questioning the appointment because of Barros’ closeness to Karadima.

In the letter, made public by the priest after Scalpalo didn’t answer it, Kliegel maintains that the community of Osorno is “confused and irritated” and says that he has no answers for the questions, doubts, and concerns of the laity.

Kliegel then led a group of 30 priests and deacons to sign a public declaration questioning the assignment. In it, they say that the mere fact of having been one of Karadima’s closest collaborators and having remained quiet while the abuses were taking place makes Barros a “non-credible person.”

“I personally spoke to the victim Carlos Cruz,” Kliegel told Crux, “[and] he confirmed the reports that claim that Barros was present during these dishonest acts.”

Since Barros claims to be innocent of any wrongdoing, Kliegel says it’s “one testimony against the other” and that “one doesn’t know who to believe.”

Yet the clerics who signed the letter are convinced that for ethical reasons and for the public good, Barros shouldn’t take leadership of the diocese.

“A bishop has to unify the flock, but his appointment causes disunity, despondency, disorientation, and huge rejection from the faithful and citizenship,” Kliegel said. “It hurts, because we see the scandal coming, and the Church in Chile doesn’t need another one. The Karadima case has already cost us a lot of credibility.”

Sources both in Chile and in Rome, who asked to remain unnamed because they’re not authorized to speak on the issue, told Crux that at least two Chilean members of the hierarchy have asked Pope Francis to rescind the appointment.

Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, archbishop of Santiago de Chile, reportedly discussed the issue with the pontiff while he was in Rome last month. On March 6, Archbishop Fernando Natalio Chomalí Garib of Concepción, who was also the interim apostolic administrator of Osorno, reportedly used an audience with Francis to raise the division the appointment has generated.

Approached by Crux hours after the private audience, Chomalí refused to comment on the grounds that he had to first speak with the priests of Osorno and the rest of the Chilean bishops.

Two days earlier, on March 4, Barros went to Osorno to have a first meeting with his future priests. During the encounter, Kliegel publicly asked him to resign the position “as a sign of love to the Church.”

But, Kliegel said, the bishop confirmed his decision to assume his role in the diocese “shielding himself behind the fact that he’d been appointed by the Holy Father.”

There are at least two recent cases of designated bishops who didn’t assume their offices.

In 2009, Gerhard Maria Wagner was appointed as auxiliary bishop in the German diocese of Linz, but because of a polemic among the local clergy that was brought to the attention of Benedict XVI, he never took the position. In that case, the controversy had nothing to do with sexual abuse.

The Rev. Carlos Alberto Novoa of Argentina requested not to take a position as auxiliary bishop of Lomas de Zamora shortly after being appointed by Francis in 2013.

The Karadima case has been a major blow to the moral authority of the Catholic Church in Chile.

Three of the survivors, James Hamilton, Fernando Batlle, and Juan Carlos Cruz, denounced Karadima for sexually abusing them at his residence at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Santiago de Chile in the early 1980s, when they were 17 years old.

The first complaints to the Vatican were made in 2010, when Karadima was already 80 years old. The criminal justice courts in Chile closed the case without ruling and without hearing from the victims. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instead opened an administrative process, and less than a year later found Karadima guilty of pedophilia and sentenced him to a life of “penitence and prayer.”

Soon after the verdict, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, then archbishop emeritus of Santiago and currently member of Pope Francis’ council of nine cardinal advisors, publicly apologized for not believing the first accusations made against Karadima in 2004.

He currently lives in a female convent in the outskirts of Santiago, with no contact with the faithful or the priests who he helped form during his 50 years ministering in the Sacred Heart of Jesus church.

After the Vatican’s ruling, a Chilean judge reopened the case but dismissed it because the statute of limitations had expired. She did determine that the abuse allegation were truthful and did so with the help of the Church.

In a move that at the time was considered unprecedented, the Vatican’s secretary of state answered Chile’s Supreme Court request for information on the canonical process conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and it was provided.