Well, it’s now happened. The great scandal of the modern Catholic Church — its tolerance for clergy who abuse children, and its laxity when dealing with bishops who themselves tolerated or enabled priest-abusers — now touches directly on the pope himself.
It’s worth laying out the timeline clearly. In 2015, Pope Francis appointed Juan Barros Madrid to the bishopric of Osorno, Chile. The appointment was met with local protests, among Catholics and non-Catholics who believed that Barros was implicated in the crimes of child sexual abuse committed by his friend Father Fernando Karadima, a prominent Chilean churchman who habitually kissed and fondled boys. In the days after the installation of Barros at Osono, Pope Francis told an archbishop that there was “no objective reason at all” to oppose the appointment. The Vatican’s own department governing these matters, the Congregation for Bishops, released a statement saying they had “carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.”
In the months following the appointment, Pope Francis became extremely dismissive of complaints. “Osorno suffers, yes, for silliness,” the pope said of the outrage in the media. “Think with your head, and do not be carried away by the noses of the leftists, who are the ones who put this thing together,” he added.
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis’s visit to Chile was marked by protests, and the pope continued his extremely brusque dismissal. “The day I see proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk,” the pontiff said. “There is not a single piece of evidence against him. It is all slander. Is that clear?” Francis said that no victims had come forward to him. It was apparently this statement that caused Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston to scramble down to Chile and meet with the pope. After O’Malley’s intervention, presumably, the pope issued a half-apology, but repeated that the accusations against Barros were “slander” before adding, “I’m convinced he’s innocent.”
And now the news drops. In the time between the pope’s appointment of Barros and his commentary about protesters being carried away by leftists, members of the Vatican’s own Commission for the Protection of Minors gathered to discuss the appointment. They had a representative hand-deliver a letter to Pope Francis, from Carlos Cruz. The letter alleged, in lurid detail, that Barros had personally witnessed the abuse of Cruz at Karadima’s hands. Members of the commission photographed the hand-off of the letter to the pope, to reassure Cruz that they were doing everything possible to make his cry for justice heard.
The facts as we know them leave us with a few interpretations. 1) Pope Francis simply never read the letter, ignoring this extraordinary intervention by the Vatican’s own commission on a matter of public controversy for his pontificate. 2) Francis read the letter but forgot about it, reverting to his original understanding of the case. 3) Francis read the letter, but stuck to his decision for Barros, committing unintentional or intentional deceptions about the state of his knowledge of the accusations. 4) He read the letter, but either doubted the accusations in it, or at least found them so unimpressive that he did not decide to follow up on them.
The first explanation would mean that Francis was culpably ignorant. The second that he may lack the mental or moral faculties to competently govern the Catholic Church. The third that he is too stubborn or vain to change course in the face of evidence. And the last that he has little trust or faith in the Commission on the Protection of Minors to pass on credible counsel to him. Perhaps more reporting or disclosure will change our understanding, but none of these are satisfactory.
It’s worth noting here that the extraordinary resignation of Pope Benedict that led to Francis becoming pontiff is often credited to the Vatileaks scandal. While Benedict said his decision was made without coercion, it is widely believed that the unfolding scandal caused him to doubt the strength of his mental faculties to deal with it going forward.
The leaks about the hand-delivery of this letter to the pontiff may be evidence itself that senior churchmen are losing confidence in his pontificate. The barque of Peter sails into choppy waters.