In what appears to be an attempt to rectify the biggest misstep of his pontificate, Pope Francis has appointed an investigator with a strong track record to look into sexual abuse allegations that have dogged Bishop Juan Barros, the pope’s controversial pick to lead the diocese of Osorno, Chile. Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta has been selected to go to Chile to investigate new information brought forward by alleged victims of abuse.
Some of the victims of Fr. Fernando Karadima, a Chilean priest removed from active ministry by the Vatican in 2011 and sent to a “life of prayer and penitence”, also allege that his protege, Juan Barros, had knowledge of the abuse, or even observed as it was taking place. The pope’s seemingly callous disregard of these claims has led to strong criticism of the media-darling pontiff by an increasingly hostile international press.
Francis’ combative stance toward Barros’ accusers is not new. It most recently made headlines during the pope’s visit to Chile in January, where he accused victims making allegations against Barros of “calumny,” saying that there “is not one shred of proof against him.” In followup comments, the pope apologized for giving offense, but continued to insist that he could not “condemn” Barros without evidence. Francis had previously expressed his contempt for the same accusers in 2015 when he said that “The Osorno community is suffering because it’s dumb,” and that they had let their heads “be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof.”
Archbishop Scicluna, who will work to determine if there is any evidence to support the claims against Barros, worked as the promoter of justice for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for the better part of two decades before being appointed by Pope Francis in 2015 to head up a CDF team that handles appeals filed by clergy accused of abuse. He is credited for helping to uncover evidence of sexual abuse by Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was discovered to have abused seminarians, and also to have fathered multiple children while living a double life. Maciel became symbolic of the larger sex abuse crisis in the Church, bringing shame and scandal on what was once considered one of the most promising and fastest-growing orders in the Church.
But when it comes to Scicluna’s objectivity in a case the pope has taken such a personal interest in, certain questions are raised about whether the Maltese Archbishop will pursue an outcome not favored by the pope.
Although known before the present pontificate as being in the mold of Joseph Ratzinger, Scicluna played a pivotal role in the Amoris Laetitia controversy. As Archbishop of Malta, he issued some of the most permissive guidelines on sacraments for the divorced and remarried of any diocese in the world. In his analysis of the guidelines for OnePeterFive, Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S., wrote:
Malta has been famous as a bastion of fervent and orthodox Catholicism almost since St. Paul evangelized it in the first century. No more. For in one fell swoop, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo have avoided superficial flesh wounds and darted straight in for the jugular. They do admittedly try to disguise their death-blow with the standard bland rhetoric about the need for a sincere search for God’s will, serious prayerful discernment, “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching”, etc. But their bottom line is that in Malta there will now be no objective and enforceable limits whatsoever on the right of (non-continent) divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist. Priest confessors are being told they may no longer be deciders in such matters, only ‘accompaniers’; for access to the sacraments for all persons in these illicit unions will ultimately depend entirely on their own subjective decision of “conscience”.
Pope Francis went on to praise those guidelines, thanking Malta’s two bishops for them in a letter last April after they were published in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. Archbishop Scicluna is alleged to have told a meeting of Maltese priests in February, 2017, that he had “no choice” in signing the guidelines, because his conscience would not allow him to go against the wishes of the pope. Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register also reported at the time that Scicluna confirmed he told seminarians in his country that if any of them did not agree with Pope Francis, they were free to leave.
Adding a twist to the speculation, sources in Malta have told OnePeterFive that in the wake of the high-profile murder of popular blogger and political corruption watchdog Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bombing last October, Archbishop Scicluna has become a de facto moral leader whom many in Malta — believers and unbelievers alike — look to for guidance. Scicluna delivered the homily at Galizia’s funeral last November, during which he struck a defiant note:
We still do not know who killed Daphne. Whoever took part, in one way or another, in Daphne’s murder, I have this to tell you: However hard you try to evade from the justice of men, you will never escape from the justice of God. Repent before it is too late.
To you journalists, Daphne’s colleagues, I repeat what I have already told you: do not be afraid. I encourage you never to grow weary in your mission to be the eyes, the ears, and the mouth of the people. Do this without fear and with full respect of the truth. Dear journalists, we need you. We need people in your profession who are unshackled, who are free, intelligent, inquisitive, honest, serene, safe and protected.
One Catholic in Malta who spoke with OnePeterFive said that they had the impression that Scicluna had undergone a change since the events following Galizia’s death, and that he seemed more likely to take an unpopular stand.
So which Scicluna will go to Chile? The accomplished investigator of clerical abuse and champion of those fighting corruption, or the Archbishop who can’t say no to the pope?
Whatever the outcome, the pope has little to lose. Either an expert clears Barros of any wrongdoing, confirming belief that his appointed bishop is innocent, or Barros is found guilty, and Francis gets credit for taking action after his earlier mistakes. For Scicluna, however, discovering the truth of a case that has rocked the Chilean church for years could be a first step on a path to redemption.