Marie Collins ‘baffled’ by Pope’s appointment of controversial bishop

The Pope’s decision to appoint a Chilean bishop accused of turning a blind eye to abuse has been described as “baffling” and “disappointing” by the sole Irish member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Francis appointed Bishop Juan Barros to head the small diocese of Osorno. As a young man, Bishop Barros was a protégé of disgraced Fr Fernando Karadima, who following a Vatican investigation into charges of sexual abuse was sentenced in 2011 to a secluded life of “prayer and penitence”.

Three abuse survivors have accused Dr Barros of being complicit in Fr Karadima’s abuse, witnessing it as a seminarian and in 1984 destroying a letter of complaint sent to the Archdiocese of Santiago. Dr Barros denies knowing about the abuse before 2010.

Stressing that she was speaking in a personal capacity, Marie Collins told The Irish Catholic, “Personally as a survivor I am concerned about the appointment of Bishop Barros to the diocese. Survivors have been consistent in saying he was present when inappropriate behaviour was occurring. If he didn’t take action then there is a worry about his understanding of child abuse and a worry about his being put in a position of authority where he is responsible for child protection.”

While maintaining her “great belief in the Pope’s sincerity on child abuse”, Mrs Collins described the survivors’ testimony as “credible” and observed that the appointment appears contrary to “what we have heard about there being no way that children’s safety will not be the first priority”. 

“If there is any doubt of someone’s understanding and commitment to child protection then any appointment should be looked at very carefully before it’s made,” she said.

According to Concepcion’s Archbishop Fernando Chomalí, who briefed Pope Francis about the situation shortly after the Pope spoke with Dr Barros, then bishop to Chile’s armed forces, the Holy Father told him that “he had analysed all the past records and that there was no objective reason that Bishop Barros should not be installed as diocesan bishop.”

Regardless of this, Mrs Collins said of the appointment that, “it’s disappointing that this would go ahead over so much concern”.

Other commission members have expressed similar reservations, with London-based Pete Saunders, head of Britain’s National Association for People Abused in Childhood, saying some are considering asking commission head Cardinal O’Malley to put their concerns to Pope Francis.