It was arguably his most stunning statement to date as pontiff.
As I reported last week, while in Chile, the pope accused victims of clerical sexual abuse perpetrated by Fr. Fernando Karadima of “calumny” for alleging that his protege, papal appointee to the Diocese of Osorno, Bishop Juan Barros, of having either known of or even observed the abuse being performed. “There is not one shred of proof against him.” Francis said.. “It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”
The most vocal accuser, Juan Carlos Cruz, offered a stinging rebuttal, saying, “As if one could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros standing next to him watching everything.”
Barros maintains his innocence, but Karadima, despite his crimes falling outside the legal statute of limitations, was ordered by the Vatican, following an investigation, to retirement and “a life of prayer and penance” and a “lifelong prohibition from the public exercise of any ministerial act, particularly confession and the spiritual guidance of any category of persons”. A judge in Chile also said that while she could not legally move the case forward, proof of Karadima’s crimes “wasn’t lacking.”
So, in a situation where both the state and ecclesiastical courts have found evidence of guilt, the pope effectively called one of the victims a liar because he cannot bring “proof” that his hand-picked bishop stood by and watched while the young man was abused.
There has been more pickup in the secular media than the last time Francis lashed out at the victims in Chile, calling them “dumb” or “stupid” (depending on the translation), but why isn’t every media outlet everywhere running this story? If pope Benedict had said this, they would have been digging up the most hideous pictures of him they could find and splashing them across front pages everywhere.
Meanwhile, the pope hasn’t learned his lesson. He was chastised in the most pusillanimous way by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston over the weekend. O’Malley — who chairs the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) — said in a statement that “It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator”.
A good start, right? But O’Malley didn’t stop there:
What I do know, however, is that Pope Francis fully recognizes the egregious failures of the Church and it’s clergy who abused children and the devastating impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones.
Accompanying the Holy Father at numerous meetings with survivors I have witnessed his pain of knowing the depth and breadth of the wounds inflicted on those who were abused and that the process of recovery can take a lifetime. The Pope’s statements that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes are genuine and they are his commitment.
Having sufficiently ameliorated his criticism, “Cardinal Sean” was allowed to remain a useful minion of the papacy, and the pope decided to use his comments as a teachable moment. A moment in which he could say he was sorry – and then double down on what he did wrong in the first place.
During today’s plane presser, the pope explained (full text link) how he had had the case of Bishop Barros “studied” and “investigated.” He went on:
I had it worked on a lot. And truly there is no evidence. I use the word evidence. Then I will speak about proof. There is no evidence of culpability, it seems that it will not be found.
He said he would follow the maxim of “no one is guilty until it is proven.” But he also admitted that
When the scandal with Karadima was discovered, we all know this scandal, we began to see many priests who were formed by Karadima who were either abused or who were abusers.
He then discussed how Barros had tried to resign more than once, but Francis had turned him down, saying it would make him look like an admission of guilt. He then continued:
I will pass to a third point, that of the letter I explained clearly: what those who have been abused feel. With this I have to ask forgiveness because the word “proof” wounded, it wounded many people who were abused, but I must go to look for the certificate, I have to do that — a word on translation, in the legal jargon, I wounded them. I ask them for forgiveness because I wounded them without realizing it, but it was an unintended wound. And this horrified me a lot, because I had received them. (But) in Chile I received two [abuse victims] as you know, I met others that I kept hidden. In every trip, there is always some possibility. The ones in Philadelphia were published, three (meetings) were published, then the other cases no… And I know how much they suffer, to feel that the Pope says in their face ‘bring me a letter, a proof.’ It’s a slap. And I agree that my expression was not apt, because I didn’t think, and I understand how the Apostle Peter, in one of his letters, says that the fire has been raised. This is what I can say with sincerity. Barros will remain there if I don’t find a way to condemn him. I cannot condemn him if I don’t have — I don’t say proof — but evidence. And there are many ways to get evidence. Is that clear? [emphasis added]
Note that he is not apologizing for accusing them of “calumny” (or “slander”, depending on the translation) but for insisting on “proof” instead of “evidence.” And note that he is only apologizing for the offense, not for the belief he still holds that caused it.
So we have a known victim of sexual abuse by a Chilean cleric — a cleric whose abuse, the pope admits, produced subsequent abusers, as is often the case — and that victim also accuses one of that abuser’s proteges of standing and watching while the crime takes place. And the pope accuses the man of making it all up to slander a man.
It is certainly a possibility that the pope is right. In the absence of evidence, accusations like these have been used to destroy reputations before.
But if it is true, what proof can possibly be brought forward? What evidence? What does the man have to gain by saying it? And what benefit did the pope derive from appointing such a controversial figure in the first place over the protest of his would-be diocese — protests that have made him unable to effectively lead his flock? Why would the pope continue to leave him in place after all of this?
Marie Collins, the abuse survivor who quit the PCPM in 2017 over obstacles to its mandate that included limitation of resources and curial interference, said at the time of her resignation that she believed “the pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse and the need for those who would hurt minors to be stopped.”
The Pope is reported as unconcerned by the month long delay in member appointments to PCPM, the proposed names are being vetted by the Roman Curia. These facts says all that is needed to be said about the priority being given to this Commission and this issue in the Vatican
I have been asked by media to comment on the words of the Pope today on the Commission for Protection of Minors and Barros “evidence”. Why comment? It’s a pointless waste of effort. Sorry for such a negative non comment it’s just the way I feel right now.
Even though this story isn’t showing up as broadly or in as damning terms as one might expect were Francis an orthodox Catholic, for some, his papacy has more than lost its luster.
Notice the editorializing language in the Reuters piece I cited above. It shows how serious a stumble this has been for a man who has been a non-stop media rock star:
“the pope replied in a snippy tone”
“in an extremely rare act of self-criticism”
“an unusually contrite pope”
These are not complimentary phrases.
In another piece entitled, “Pope Francis, Company Man“, Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe takes an even bigger swing at the pontiff:
Let the record show that the promise of Pope Francis died in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 18, in the year of our Lord 2018.
When Pope Francis slandered victims of sexual abuse, ironically by accusing those very victims of slandering a Chilean bishop who was complicit in that abuse, he confirmed what some critics have said all along, what I have always resisted embracing: Pope Francis is a company man, no better than his predecessors when it comes to siding with the institutional Roman Catholic Church against any who would criticize it or those, even children, who have been victimized by it.
I offer my hearty congratulations to His Holiness, His Eminence, or whatever self-regarding, officious title that his legion of coat holders, admirers, apologists, and enablers insist we, the great unwashed, call him. Because he has revealed himself like no one else could.
By saying he needs to see proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the abuse perpetrated by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Francis has shown himself to be the Vatican’s newest Doubting Thomas. And it’s not a good look.
“He has revealed himself like no one else could.” Indeed he has. And now the narrative is beginning to fall apart.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.