In Chile decision, Pope Francis risks reputation as reformer

Episcopal installation Masses don’t usually involve teeming protesters, shouting matches, and popping balloons. But Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid’s did. Last Saturday, Barros was installed as bishop of Osorno, Chile, following allegations that he covered up for a sexually abusive priest who had been his mentor. “Barros, get out of the city!” chanted the demonstrators, waving black balloons. The bishop’s supporters tried to drown them out, brandishing white balloons. Some demonstrators attempted to climb the cathedral altar. The service was cut short, and Barros was escorted by police through a side door. Chile’s cardinals, along with most of its bishops, were not in attendance. Familiar with recent history, they knew it was going to be an ugly scene.

Four years ago, the Holy See found Fr. Fernando Karadima guilty of molesting minors, and ordered him to a life of “prayer and penance.” The Karadima case has been called the worst scandal ever to befall the Chilean Catholic Church. Karadima, now eighty-four, was once one of Chile’s most influential clerics. He ministered to the wealthy, and had strong ties to Chile’s elite. He developed a devoted following, molding the church’s future leaders. Four of his protégées, including Barros, later became bishops. Now, several of Karadima’s victims—once his devotees—say that Barros not only knew about the decades-old accusations and did nothing, but that he witnessed the abuse himself. Barros denies all of it, and refuses to resign.

After Barros’s appointment was announced in January, about thirteen hundred Chilean laypeople, including dozens of lawmakers, signed a petition seeking Barros’s removal. More than thirty clerics signed a letter asking the pope to reconsider his decision. Two Chilean bishops reportedly met with Francis to brief him on how difficult this has been for the local church. “The pope told me he had analyzed the situation in detail and found no reason” to remove Barros, the archbishop of Concepción, Fernando Chomalí, told the New York Times. Just before Barros’s installation service, the papal envoy to Chile announced that the bishop had his “confidence and support.”

Some had hoped that pressure brought by members of the pope’s new sexual-abuse commission—several of whom recently expressed grave reservations about the appointment—might persuade Francis to act, or Barros to resign. After all, just last month the pope said that “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.” He even seemed to chide bishops who had used the excuse of not giving scandal to avoid addressing the issue. But yesterday the Holy See released a terse, curiously worded statement responding to the growing controversy: “Prior to the recent appointment of His Excellency Msgr. Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as bishop of Osorno, Chile, the Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.” If this is Rome’s last word on Barros, then Francis should know that his decision has imperiled not only the Diocese of Osorno, but also his own reputation as a reformer.

The Barros case presents an interesting challenge to the pope’s efforts to bring the church around on the sexual-abuse scandal. The bishop is not accused of committing abuse himself. Nor is he accused of improperly handling cases of abusive priests. Indeed, he never supervised Karadima—he was merely a very close friend. Victims say that Barros covered up for Karadima, that he tried to silence them, and that he was actually present when some of them were abused—claims the bishop disputes.

Allegations of misconduct against Karadima date back to the 1980s. In 1984, parishioners wrote to Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno to warn him about Karadima’s “improper conduct.” Later, one of the signatories would hear from someone who worked with the cardinal that the letter had been “torn up and thrown away.” Barros was Fresno’s secretary at the time.

About a decade later, José Murillo, then nineteen, confronted Karadima over the priest’s sexual advances, according to the Times. Soon after, the priest and another one of his followers, Fr. Andrés Arteaga—now an auxiliary bishop of Santiago—cornered Murillo and “humiliated” him. Karadima insisted that Murillo make a confession—in the priest’s bedroom. A bishop was there when they arrived, according to Murillo. Karadima gave Murillo some whiskey “to relax me.” The bishop got nervous and left. Then Karadima opened Murillo’s pants and tried to masturbate him. (The Times could not get a comment from Karadima or Arteaga. Along with three other bishops, including Barros, Arteaga was later forced by the Chilean bishops conference to apologize to Karadima’s victims for publicly defending their mentor against their accusations.)

In 2003, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, then archbishop of Santiago, received a letter from Murillo accusing Karadima of misconduct. The cardinal refused to launch an investigation because he did not deem Murillo’s complaint credible. Yet according to norms developed by the Chilean bishops earlier that year, all reports of clerical abuse must be investigated—even if it comes through news accounts. A formal investigation was finally opened in 2004. Two years later, the report called the claims against Karadima “credible.” Cardinal Errázuriz suspended Karadima—and the investigation. He later explained that he wanted to wait for more evidence, and that he thought the alleged abuse occurred outside the statute of limitations. The investigation resumed in 2009, after other complaints surfaced. Errázuriz forwarded a seven-hundred-page dossier on Karadima to the Vatican, where the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took on the case.

Around that time another man, James Hamilton, wrote about the abuse he said he suffered at the hands of Karadima. He had included the experience in his application for an annulment. (He filed a complaint with the diocese in 2005, but received no response.) Somehow, Hamilton’s pastor in Chile got wind of it, and asked him to remove the passages about Karadima. Hamilton refused. How did his pastor learn the contents of the confidential document? It was leaked to him—and to Bishop Arteaga—by Fr. Francisco Walker, then president of the Ecclesiastical Tribunal, the canon-law court that was considering Hamilton’s petition for annulment. Walker resigned from the court in 2010.

In April 2010, a criminal complaint was brought against Karadima (four men initially made the charges, and four more later said they too had been abused). During the proceedings, Fr. Hans Klest testified that he had seen Karadima commit acts of abuse, as did Fr. Andrés Ferrada. Eventually a judge dismissed the charges because the statute of limitations had expired. (Karadima has denied the allegations.) Karadima was not disciplined by the Holy See until 2011, six years after the canonical investigation began.

Karadima had an interesting legal-defense team. It included Juan Pablo Bulnes Cerda, whose brother was sentenced in 1970 for the killing of General René Schneider. The general was shot during a botched kidnapping attempt intended to prevent the inauguration of Salvador Allende, who was a Marxist. (Schneider refused to allow the military to block his inauguration.) Bulnes’s firm included an attorney who had ties to a paramilitary group that helped to destabilize Chile during the Allende administration. Karadima was also represented by lawyers who defended another man implicated in the Schneider assassination, as well as one who defended the infamous commune Colonia Dignidad. The colony was founded by the former Nazi medic Paul Schäfer, who fled Germany in 1961 after he was accused of molesting children and found a new life for himself in Chile as a cult leader. (A Chilean court later convicted him of abusing more than two dozen children. Twenty-two other Colonia residents were found guilty of abetting child molestation.) Colonia Dignidad was not only a fortified (with lots and lots of weapons) haven for child molesters. Conveniently located on the Argentine border, the colony also apparently served as a rest stop for Nazis on the ratline, including Joseph Mengele. Later it allegedly housed one of Pinochet’s torture chambers.

Which brings us back to Barros. In an interview with Jason Berry, Juan Carlos Cruz, who says Barros saw Karadima molest him, explains that “the triumvirate of power in the 1980s was Karadima, Cardinal Fresno, and Archbishop Angelo Sodano," papal nuncio to Chile from 1977 to 1988. Sodano, often criticized for his support of Pinochet, went on to become Secretary of State under John Paul II, where he influenced a number of episcopal appointments. Berry reports that Sodano had a hand in the decision to make Barros a bishop (he previously served as bishop to the Chilean military). The current papal nuncio to Chile is Archbishop Ivo Scapola—“a Sodano protégé,” writes Berry. Scapola is reportedly the one who lobbied for Barros to be named bishop of Osorno (a small diocese), against the wishes of “the majority of the Bishops of Chile,” according to Fr. Alex Vigueras, provincial of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Chile.

Why is Angelo Sodano still influencing episcopal appointments? This is a man who blocked Joseph Ratzinger from investigating the notorious abuser Marcial Maciel (founder of the Legionaries of Christ) as well as Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, accused of molesting boys in the mid-1990s. In 2004, as John Paul II was ailing, Ratzinger finally moved forward with Maciel’s investigation. But the following year, Sodano sent a statement to the Legionaries of Christ alleging that there was no canonical proceeding against Maciel. In fact evidence was still being collected. The Legionaries happily announced that Maciel had been cleared of all wrongdoing. And in 2010, years after Maciel had been “invited” to a life of prayer and penance, Sodano offered unplanned remarks dismissing criticism of Pope Benedict’s handling of the scandal as “petty gossip”—during Easter Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s. At age eighty-seven, Sodano remains dean of the College of Cardinals.

So what’s really going on here? I wish I knew. Karadima’s victims say Barros is complicit in their abuse. They seem credible. Obviously their testimony helped move the Vatican to discipline Karadima. Barros says he knew nothing about Karadima’s crimes (which the priest denied during his criminal proceeding). “I had no knowledge of the allegations against Rev. Karadima while serving as secretary to Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno,” Barros asserted in a letter to Osorno Catholics. How credible you find that claim depends on whether you believe letters of complaint about Karadima could have gotten to the cardinal without passing over the desk of his secretary—that is, Barros.

America Media’s Gerard O’Connell cites unnamed sources—actually, they’re not identified in any way other than “informed”—who claim that the Holy See examined all the evidence and concluded that there is “no legal foundation” to the accusations against Barros. I have no idea what that means, and O’Connell doesn’t explain. Then he cites more unidentified sources who downplay the concerns expressed by several members of the pope’s sexual-abuse commission. O’Connell concludes: “Those who believe otherwise surely have the obligation now to produce solid evidence to substantiate their allegations.” Says who? O’Connell doesn’t explain. That’s his summary of the opinion of yet another unidentified source.

No doubt Pope Francis and the Congregation for Bishops have more information than is publicly available. As the congregation explained yesterday, it “carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Did the Vatican find subjective reasons to bounce Barros? Those aren’t in short supply. Perhaps the pope is uncomfortable giving the appearance of acquiescing to a campaign of guilt by association. Or perhaps this is an instance of actual guilt by association. But if that statement is all the Holy See is willing to disclose about the matter, then we may never know.

Still, even if Pope Francis finds himself unable to resolve the moral question about Barros—and it is, as I’ve tried to show, a brain-rackingly complex case—is it so hard to answer the morale question? Barros’s installation Mass was a circus. Thousands protesting outside the cathedral. Chaos inside. Demonstrators throwing objects at their new shepherd. Most Chilean bishops failing even to show up. Two of them flying to Rome to try to change Francis’s mind. The bishops conference offering a half-hearted word of non-opposition to the appointment. Many priests, deacons, and laypeople calling for Barros’s removal. It’s not as though no one could have seen this coming. The Karadima scandal is the worst Chilean Catholics have ever known. Not giving a territorial diocese to a bishop who once publicly defended him should have been a no-brainer. Instead, the pope has managed to reopen one of the Chilean church’s deepest wounds.

This is not a problem for Chilean Catholics alone. The pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors is just getting off the ground. Catholics the world over are expecting it to respond to the great unfinished business of the sexual-abuse scandal: accountability for bishops who culpably failed to protect children. Francis rightly won plaudits for daring to put victims on that commission. But at least five members have spoken out against the Barros appointment—and one is threatening to quit. “Pope Francis has to withdraw this appointment or I and others may find it impossible to stay on the commission,” Peter Saunders told Jason Berry. That would be calamitous for the pope’s reform efforts. Not only would it damage the credibility of the commission itself, but it would give aid and comfort to the curial officials who never wanted it to succeed in the first place.