Before discussing the Associated Press’s report (of which I learned thanks to Rod Dreher), it would be helpful to provide some context.
In mid-January, Pope Francis visited Chile and Peru. His visit to Chile was going to be a particularly sensitive visit, seeing that almost 80 members of Chilean clergy have been accused of sexually abusing children.
Chile’s church earned wide respect during the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet because it spoke out against the military’s human rights abuses, but it began a downward spiral in 2010 when victims of a charismatic, politically connected priest came forward with allegations that he had kissed and fondled them.
Local church leaders had ignored the complaints against the Rev. Fernando Karadima for years, but they were forced to open an official investigation after the victims went public and Chilean prosecutors started investigating. The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for his crimes, but the church leadership hasn’t won back Chileans’ trust for having covered up Karadima’s crimes for so long.
“The Karadima case created a ferocious wound,” said Chile’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mariano Fernandez Amunategui. He and others inside the Vatican speak openly of a Chilean church “in crisis” as a result, a remarkable admission of the scandal’s toll on a church that wielded such political clout that it helped stave off laws legalizing divorce and abortion until recently.
Chileans’ disenchantment has even affected their views of the pope himself. A recent survey by Latinobarometro, a respected regional polling firm, found that Chile had a lower esteem for history’s first Latin American pope than 18 other Central and South American countries. Even among Chilean Catholics, only 42 percent approve of the job Francis is doing, compared to a regional average of 68 percent.
Unfortunately, any chance Francis may have had in healing wounds created by the scandal was gutted with remarks that directly questioned the integrity of sexual abuse victims themselves.
Pope Francis accused victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile of slander Thursday, an astonishing end to a visit meant to help heal the wounds of a sex abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic Church its credibility in the country.
Francis said that until he sees proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, such accusations against Barros are “all calumny.”
The pope’s remarks drew shock from Chileans and immediate rebuke from victims and their advocates. They noted the accusers were deemed credible enough by the Vatican that it sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for his crimes in 2011. A Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying that while she had to drop criminal charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, proof of his crimes wasn’t lacking.
“As if I could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all,” tweeted Barros’ most vocal accuser, Juan Carlos Cruz. “These people are truly crazy, and the pontiff talks about atonement to the victims. Nothing has changed, and his plea for forgiveness is empty.”
The Karadima scandal dominated Francis’ visit to Chile and the overall issue of sex abuse and church cover-up was likely to factor into his three-day trip to Peru that began late Thursday.
Karadima’s victims reported to church authorities as early as 2002 that he would kiss and fondle them in the swank Santiago parish he ran, but officials refused to believe them. Only when the victims went public with their accusations in 2010 did the Vatican launch an investigation that led to Karadima being removed from ministry.
The emeritus archbishop of Santiago subsequently apologized for having refused to believe the victims from the start.
Francis’s move to send an expert to Chile “to investigate a bishop accused by victims of covering up for the country’s most notorious pedophile priest” did nothing to mitigate the outrage his remarks made.
With that background, let us now turn to a potential bombshell of a report by the Associated Press:
Pope Francis received a victim’s letter in 2015 that graphically detailed sexual abuse at the hands of a priest and a cover-up by Chilean church authorities, contradicting the pope’s recent insistence that no victims had come forward, the letter’s author and members of Francis’ own sex- abuse commission have told The Associated Press.
The fact that Francis received the eight-page letter, obtained by the AP, challenges his insistence that he has “zero tolerance” for sex abuse and cover-ups. It also calls into question his stated empathy with abuse survivors, compounding the most serious crisis of his five-year papacy.
The scandal exploded last month when Francis’ trip to South America was marred by protests over his vigorous defense of Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of covering up the abuse by the Rev. Fernando Karadima. During the trip, Francis callously dismissed accusations against Barros as “slander,” seemingly unaware that victims had placed him at the scene of Karadima’s crimes.
On the plane home, confronted by reporters, the pope said: “You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward.”
But members of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors say that in April 2015, they sent a delegation to Rome specifically to hand-deliver a letter to the pope about Barros. The letter from Juan Carlos Cruz detailed the abuse, kissing and fondling he says he suffered at Karadima’s hands, which he said Barros and others witnessed and ignored.
Four members of the commission met with Francis’ top abuse adviser, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, explained their objections to Francis’ recent appointment of Barros as a bishop in southern Chile, and gave him the letter to deliver to Francis.
“When we gave him (O’Malley) the letter for the pope, he assured us he would give it to the pope and speak of the concerns,” then-commission member Marie Collins told the AP. “And at a later date, he assured us that that had been done.”
Neither the Vatican nor O’Malley responded to multiple requests for comment.
In the letter to the pope, Cruz begs for Francis to listen to him and make good on his pledge of “zero tolerance.”
“Holy Father, it’s bad enough that we suffered such tremendous pain and anguish from the sexual and psychological abuse, but the terrible mistreatment we received from our pastors is almost worse,” he wrote.
Cruz goes on to detail in explicit terms the homo-eroticized nature of the circle of priests and young boys around Karadima, the charismatic preacher whose El Bosque community in the well-to-do Santiago neighborhood of Providencia produced dozens of priestly vocations and five bishops, including Barros.
He described how Karadima would kiss Barros and fondle his genitals, and do the same with younger priests and teens, and how young priests and seminarians would fight to sit next to Karadima at the table to receive his affections.
“More difficult and tough was when we were in Karadima’s room and Juan Barros — if he wasn’t kissing Karadima — would watch when Karadima would touch us — the minors — and make us kiss him, saying: ‘Put your mouth near mine and stick out your tongue.’ He would stick his out and kiss us with his tongue,” Cruz told the pope. “Juan Barros was a witness to all this innumerable times, not just with me but with others as well.”
“Juan Barros covered up everything that I have told you,” he added.
Barros has repeatedly denied witnessing any abuse or covering it up. “I never knew anything about, nor ever imagined, the serious abuses which that priest committed against the victims,” he told the AP recently. “I have never approved of nor participated in such serious, dishonest acts, and I have never been convicted by any tribunal of such things.”
For the Osorno faithful who have opposed Barros as their bishop, the issue isn’t so much a legal matter requiring proof or evidence, as Barros was a young priest at the time and not in a position of authority over Karadima. It’s more that if Barros didn’t “see” what was happening around him and doesn’t find it problematic for a priest to kiss and fondle young boys, he shouldn’t be in charge of a diocese where he is responsible for detecting inappropriate sexual behavior, reporting it to police and protecting children from pedophiles like his mentor.
This appears to be clear evidence that he lied about whether victims had come forward to the Vatican to present evidence of abuse. As Rod Dreher observed, to be caught in such a lie fifteen years after the Boston sex abuse scandal is outrageous, and reflects “depraved indifference” on the Vatican’s behalf.
These are damning allegations that Pope Francis needs to confront. Immediately.