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.