When Pope Francis appointed Juan Barros Madrid bishop of Osorno, Chile, in 2015, violent protests broke out in the streets and in the cathedral at his installation Mass. Barros was a protégé of the notorious priest Fernando Karadima, a charismatic and influential figure in the church of Santiago who had engaged in the sexual abuse of minors over the course of three decades. Karadima was sentenced by an ecclesiastical court in 2011 to a life of prayer and penitence. Yet four of Karadima’s favorites, who had turned a blind eye to his abusive behavior and defended him when he was initially accused, were later made bishops; Barros was one of those four. When Pope Francis proclaimed Barros’s innocence and expressed belief in his side of the story over the victims’, it immediately became an international scandal.

Much is at stake in this troubling case. It is not only about Pope Francis and his grasp of the abuse crisis, although this is very important. It is also about whether and how a local church hierarchy can credibly reform itself.

On April 28 and 29, Francis, in a spirit of “reparation,” met personally with three abuse survivors who’d blown the whistle on Karadima. They had called out Barros and other bishops early and often for their complicity in failing to stop the abuse. These were the victims whose voices Francis could have heard but didn’t at first because he was misled by informants who gave him a partial and biased account of the affair. Now, Francis has spent an extended period with these survivors, listening to their stories, expressing contrition for his own role in the problem, and seeking their advice.

This gesture, although necessary and heartening, was the easy part. The hard part comes in mid-May (14-17), when Francis meets with all the Chilean bishops in Rome.* It will be a day of reckoning for these bishops, and a lot depends on how it all plays out, because the deceit concerning clerical sex abuse, and the denial of responsibility for the culture that enabled it, go to the top of the Chilean hierarchy. This is not just about the fate of one bishop. It’s about the way the whole system works.

Some background is necessary to understand why the appointment of Barros to the diocese of Osorno was so explosive. Karadima cultivated many young men who wanted to grow in their faith, more than fifty of whom eventually became priests. Barros was one of them. In 1995, he was ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II. He then served as a bishop in the military ordinariate until 2015, when Francis appointed him to head the diocese of Osorno. Barros claims to have known nothing about Karadima’s crimes, a claim that survivors have contested.

Chilean Father Fernando Karadima attends a 2015 hearing at the Supreme Court building in Santiago. (CNS photo/Sebastian Silva, EPA)

Pope Francis at first maintained that Barros was innocent, and stoutly defended him despite all argument to the contrary. He blamed leftist politics for the public unrest. Twice, he refused to accept Barros’s resignation. During his trip to Chile in January, Francis said he investigated the case personally, adding that the accusations against Barros were “calumny” and there was “no evidence” against him.

It was an unexpectedly harsh outburst, but Francis’s tendency to rely on his own judgment is a weakness he acknowledges. As writer Paul Vallely observes in his biography of the pope, Francis has in the past made headstrong decisions that caused actual damage, and which he later regretted. When Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the head of the Vatican’s commission for child protection, admonished Francis for seeming to dismiss the evidence of the victims’ eyewitness accounts, Francis accepted the criticism. He offered a partial apology but, more importantly, he also made the crucial decision to send an experienced investigator of abuse cases, the Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to Chile to get to the bottom of the affair.

The results of Scicluna’s investigation were summarized in a 2,300-page report that contained the testimony of sixty-four witnesses, including but not limited to the Karadima case. Francis was mortified at the extent and depth of the scandal. On April 8, he sent a letter to the Chilean bishops apologizing for his “serious errors” in judgment concerning the abuse crisis in Chile and acknowledging his “pain and shame” upon reading the accounts of survivors. He asked the Chilean bishops to meet with him in mid-May in Rome to discuss how to “reestablish trust and ecclesial communion” and to set goals for “repairing as much as possible the scandal and re-establishing justice.”

It was an unexpectedly harsh outburst, but Francis’s tendency to rely on his own judgment is a weakness he acknowledges.

The tone of Francis’s letter is one of fraternal charity, prayer, and a summons to conversion. But there is no mistaking the gravity of what he had to say. There was no more mention of political interference or enemies of the church. There was no suggestion that an innocent cleric had been unfairly maligned and needed to be defended. There was not even any particular mention of Osorno or of Barros. Instead, the enormity of the scandal itself and its lingering effects on the Chilean church in terms of the loss of “ecclesial communion” (a very serious charge which, in this instance, seems to refer to strife and divisions within the local church), and the continuing presence of injustice, took priority. The pope, referring to the victims, spoke about “crucified lives.”

In this letter, Francis also said directly that his initial informants brought him incomplete and untruthful information. Since receiving the letter, one after another of the higher clergy have denied misleading the pope, creating a kind of “Who, me, Lord?” tableau in the press. "This is an earthquake for many bishops in Chile,” said abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz; the ground underneath their feet has shaken.

In addition to Barros, there are three other bishops who belonged to Karadima’s circle and who, it is believed, owe their advancement to the same network that protected Karadima. They are: Andrés Arteaga, vice-chancellor of the Universidad Católica de Chile; Tomislav Koljatic Maroevic, bishop of Linares, Chile; and Horacio Valenzuela Abarca, bishop of Talca, Chile. All denied knowing anything about Karadima’s crimes, but clearly the crisis is engulfing them too. If Barros was an enabler and not so innocent as he claims, what about them? There have been calls for Koljatic's resignation, as well as that of Valenzuela. “I was not lucid enough to understand what was happening in El Bosque parish,” where Karadima was stationed, Valenzuela said in a recent radio interview, but this excuse did not absolve him. Since the fateful letter of Francis was made public, Bishop Koljatic has expressed willingness to resign at the pope’s discretion. All remain on tenterhooks, waiting for what will happen next.

Looming over these specifics is the vexing and in many ways more important question of why the bishops at the higher levels—where appointments are weighed—decided to downplay, ignore, or dismiss public concerns about appointing men to episcopal sees who either willingly or naively cooperated with a serial abuser. Did they believe the scandal really didn’t matter?

There is also, in this case, the rather stunning question of accountability for lying to the pope. Francis did not say who provided him with untruthful information, but the obvious inference is that the current and former cardinal archbishops of Santiago bear some responsibility. Such a realization must come as a bitter blow to Francis, because Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, the former archbishop of Santiago, is one of Francis’s closest collaborators, a member of his cabinet of cardinal advisors on reform, the so-called C9.

Errázuriz knew all about the Karadima case. The seven-hundred-page report to the CDF that finally resulted in Karadima’s ecclesial censure was submitted on his watch. He repeatedly delayed the administration of justice for Karadima while he was archbishop; he cannot have conveniently forgotten all about it. He certainly knew the cause of public unrest around the appointment of Barros, and was in regular face-to-face contact with Pope Francis in Rome while it was going on. To have failed to tell Pope Francis the truth about the matter is to have abdicated his responsibility to justice.

Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, retired archbishop of Santiago, is pictured during the Mass for the election of the Roman pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this March 12, 2013, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

It is equally clear that the current archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello, worked hand-in-glove with Errázuriz. He was auxiliary bishop during Errázuriz’s tenure, and later succeeded him. Ezzati, like Errázuriz, knew the case well, and was in a position to intervene and set the record straight for Pope Francis. He cannot plausibly deny knowledge of the impression that Francis formed of the case: it was all over the press. And he certainly was in a position to correct that impression. Even if there are others who provided misleading or incomplete information to Francis (the papal nuncio, Ivo Scapolo, is a likely example, and the Spanish Jesuit, Germán Arana, has been mentioned), it is obvious that these two cardinals have some explaining to do.

Yet they do not appear ready to accept responsibility. Ezzati, in a meeting he held with priests after the pope’s letter was made public, defended his actions, allegedly claiming he had “done everything right.” Since then, he publically avowed that Barros should be removed from his post “for the good of the people of God”—a sentiment he did not voice earlier. At a recent press conference, Errázuriz huffily denied having anything to do with informing Francis about Barros. “It is not part of our task to inform the pope about the difficulties, the possible errors and evils that affect the church,” Errázuriz said of his work with the C9. He also declared, of the abuse survivors: “Thank God, three of them, Andrés Murillo, Juan Carlos Cruz, and Dr. Hamilton, broke the silence."

Unfortunately, this pious exclamation rings hollow. An email correspondence between Errázuriz and Ezzati during 2013–14, published by the Chilean news site El Mostrador in September 2015, showed no gratitude whatsoever for silence-breaking on this scandal. In fact, they both were very much concerned to suppress the full story of the Karadima case. According to these emails, they conspired to thwart one of Karadima’s survivors, Juan Cruz, from bringing to Rome his view of the case and how it was handled. Here are the relevant excerpts:

April 21, 2013, Ezzati to Errázuriz

“This morning I had a story that I did not like at all. A journalist informed me that Mr. Cruz has been invited by the Anglophone Episcopal Conference to give his testimony of the experience of abuse suffered by Fr. Karadima and the behavior of the church of Santiago in relation to it, in the meeting that will take place in Rome in the last week of May. . . . I also ask your advice to see who to intervene in Rome to prevent this from happening. We know what Mr. Cruz’s intention is for you and the church of Santiago. I hope we can prevent lies from finding space among those who make up the Church itself.”

April 22, 2013, Errázuriz to Ezzati

“It is nonsense to invite Carlos Cruz, who is going to distort the truth . . . do they also invite those who present things from our point of view? . . . [H]e will use the invitation to continue harming the church. I could prepare a brief report of the stages of the denunciation of Mr. Carlos Cruz, which was well and promptly attended to since he formally presented it. Lift up your hearts! We read it on Sunday: the Serpent does not prevail.”

In 2014, their concern was aroused again when Cruz was suggested as a possible appointee to Pope Francis’s newly formed commission on the protection of minors.

July 1, 2014, Errázuriz to Ezzati

“The head of the commission is Cardinal O’Malley. He wants the names of all possible members, before an appointment by the Holy Father, to pass through the Nuncios in consultation with the respective Bishops. I gave him the material. It is clear to him that he [Cruz] should not be named. Anyway, although I did it on Sunday, put the Nuncio on notice.”

This is in keeping with their conduct during the Karadima case. The story is as sad and infuriating as it is familiar. Complaints against Karadima were filed as early as 1983, but they were dismissed by Errázuriz’s predecessor, Cardinal Juan Francesco Larrain (1983–90). In 2003, soon after the publication of guidelines for dealing with abusive clergy, José Andrés Murillo, another of Karadima’s victims, sent in a formal complaint. Errázuriz opened the investigation a year later, but when he received the report which found that the charges were substantiated, he rejected it. Later he admitted this was a mistake, and cooperated with the investigation by the CDF. But he never actually delivered the bad news. While the Congregation was still deliberating, Pope Benedict accepted Errázuriz’s resignation in 2010.

To have failed to tell Pope Francis the truth about the matter is to have abdicated his responsibility to justice.

The bitter history of how the case was handled cannot be erased, but the question is: what can be done now to bring about some measure of justice and healing for the future? What does it take to raise protection of minors to a level above the unwritten demands of a clerical culture that always reinforces itself—even at the expense of the vulnerable? Clearly it is not enough for Barros to step down, as Ezzati suggested. Nor will the situation be addressed by an apology from Karadima, as another bishop recently proposed. Should the remaining three Karadima bishops also be relieved of their duties? Should Ezzati himself resign? Some commenters have noted that Ezzati is of retirement age anyway. But would his retirement be just another case of a bishop stepping off the stage without admitting wrongdoing, and then everything returns to business as usual? At the very least, Errázuriz’s term on the C9 should not be renewed. But even if a number of resignations are offered and accepted, the work of reform and rebuilding trust promises to be a long and difficult project.

The meeting between survivors and Francis was good for Francis, undoubtedly, and it provided some consolation to the survivors who met with him, but it does not solve the problem of accountability. Murillo, one of the survivors, tweeted afterwards: “Today I spoke with the Pope for two hours in a very respectful and frank way I expressed the importance of understanding abuse as an abuse of power. Of the need to take responsibility . . .”

The most hopeful sign thus far has been the statement issued by the president of the episcopal conference in Chile, Santiago Silva Retamales. Bishop Silva acknowledged the pain and awkwardness this meeting with Pope Francis is necessarily going to occasion. But he also articulated hope for ecclesial renewal that is deeply rooted, long-term, and universal in scope. He described it as a call to conversion in their very way of being Church:

. . . I believe that the underlying problems are not only the manipulation of consciences and abuses of children, although very serious, but a style of being Church and evangelizing that we have to rethink, because they are not contributing to Christian identity and commitment to society.


The solution does not pass through superficial decisions or only by short-term measures. The path, which is perceived to be long, must have both in its origin and in its development that permanent inner renewal that touches consciences and wills and that, by evangelical demand, will be expressed in a credible witness, not only at the level of intentions, but especially with works.


Perhaps none of the problems mentioned by the Church in Chile is exclusive to our country. But the intensity and the progressive awareness that abuses of power and sexual abuse in the Church can never happen again is a task that we have been learning with pain. The victims have shown us with their testimony and their revelations, the deep suffering that is caused by these deplorable acts, and is difficult to cure.


Pope Paul VI in Ecclesiam suam (1964) invited us to dialogue . . . to walk together. The work of ecclesial renewal will not be done by the bishops listening to ourselves, but rather it is the challenge of the whole People of God, and of us as members of it. . . .

One thing is certain: Pope Francis cannot rest content with superficial assurances that the bishops will simply “try to do better.” There have to be consequences for enabling and ignoring and covering up clerical abuse. Resignations, reassignments, calling to account, telling the truth, taking responsibility: it’s a tall order. But things cannot remain as they are. The way in which this affair has played out so far demonstrates that there must be a deeper reckoning.


*Update, May 9: Today it was confirmed that Cardinal Errázuriz will not travel to Rome to attend the meeting with Pope Francis and the Chilean bishops. The eighty-six year old prelate said he will be absent for personal reasons.

*Update, May 12: The cardinal today boarded a plane for Rome, saying, “at my age I can change my mind.” La Tercera reports that this change of mind was prompted by a phone call from Pope Francis ordering him to come.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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