Vatican stands by controversial bishop

Pope Francis’ decision to appoint an under-fire Chilean bishop is difficult to understand, says Greg Daly

It’s not surprising that abuse survivor Marie Collins has described as “baffling” the recent installation of Dr Juan Barros, bishop to Chile’s armed forces, as bishop of the Diocese of Osorno. 

At least 30 clergy and 1,300 lay people from the small diocese wrote to Rome to oppose the move, as did 51 of Chile’s 120 members of parliament. Neither Chilean cardinal attended Dr Barros’ installation Mass, and only 12 of Chile’s more than 50 bishops took part in a ceremony at which over 3,000 black-clad people loudly protested, some throwing objects at Dr Barros and jostling him as he sought to enter and take possession of his cathedral.

Such opposition is understandable: Dr Barros is accused of complicity in abuse committed by Chile’s most notorious clerical sex abuser, 84-year-old Fr Fernando Karadima.

Fr Karadima, a once-influential society priest, was in 2011 sentenced by Rome to live out the rest of his days in prayer and penance, confined in a convent and isolated from everyone other than family. Criminal proceedings, opened the previous year but closed without hearing from Fr Karadima’s victims, were reopened after the Vatican decision, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith supplying Chile’s Supreme Court with information on the canonical process. 

Although the case was eventually dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired, Judge Jessica Gonzalez ruled that the accusations, dating back at least as far as 1962, were truthful. 


During his 50 years in an affluent Santiago parish, Fr Karadima had a profound impact on many youths. Four of those who entered the priesthood, including 58-year-old Dr Barros, have become bishops, but others have become national figures through publicly revealing how Fr Karadima abused them in their teenage years.

Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and José Andrés Murillo, all currently embroiled in a legal dispute with the Archdiocese of Santiago, insist that despite claiming he first heard of Fr Karadima’s abuse in 2010, Dr Barros knew about it at the time. 

In a joint statement sent to the Boston Globe-associated site Crux, the trio describe themselves as “survivors of the abuse by Karadima, and the complicity of Bishop Barros”, and Dr Barros as “a man we know and have accused of witnessing abuse, our abuse, and therefore encouraging the perverse dynamics of power”.

Mr Cruz has described how he was 15 when his father died and he turned to Fr Karadima, who took to kissing and fondling him, sometimes in front of seminarians. Insisting that “Barros was there, and he saw it”, Mr Cruz has supplied the Associated Press with a letter to Chile’s papal nuncio, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, describing how he “saw Karadima and Juan Barros kissing and touching each other”. He has accused Dr Barros of having done his former mentor’s “dirty work”. Dr Hamilton has likewise claimed that Dr Barros was present when Fr Karadima committed his abuse, and that he enjoyed watching it. 

A fourth survivor, Francisco Gomez, adds a further concern, relating how in 1984 he and other victims of Fr Karadima wrote to Santiago’s Archbishop Francisco Fresno detailing Fr Karadima’s behaviour. 

According to Juan Hoelzzel, then working in the archbishop’s office, the young Juan Barros, who had become secretary to the archbishop while still a seminarian, destroyed the letter after reading it. 

When this was alleged during Fr Karadima’s criminal trial, Dr Barros said that he had “no knowledge” of the letter, and could neither deny nor affirm claims that he had destroyed it. 

Despite such concerns, Concepcion’s Archbishop Fernando Chomalí reported in early March how, having briefed Pope Francis about the situation, the Holy Father told him “he had analysed all the past records and that there was no objective reason that Bishop Barros should not be installed as diocesan bishop”. 

On March 31, the Congregation for Bishops issued a statement that it had “carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment”.

It is easy to see why such assurances have met with scepticism. If the survivors’ testimony was good enough in 2011 for one Roman congregation to bar Fr Karadima from ministry and sentence him to a life of penitential prayer and solitude, why is it not good enough in 2015 for another to find “objective reasons” to bar Dr Barros from a role of pastoral oversight in the Chilean Church? 

That Pope Francis believes Dr Barros innocent surely goes without saying, but this still leaves the question of why he would back an appointment that will leave Dr Barros a bishop devoid of credibility and authority.

One explanation may be that he has had poor advice, perhaps from such prelates as Cardinal Angelo Sodano or Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz.

Cardinal Sodano, the 87-year-old Dean of the College of Cardinals and erstwhile Secretary of State, has been accused in the past of having defended such notorious abusers as Fr Marcial Maciel, Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, and onetime Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Hans Hermann Groer.

Mr Cruz says that as papal nuncio to Chile in the 1980s, the then Archbishop Sodano dominated the Chilean Church as part of a “triumvirate of power” with Fr Karadima and the then Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Fresno, who Dr Barros served as secretary. 

Another possibility is Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, the former Archbishop of Santiago, who Mr Cruz believes “minimised sex abuse cases”. 

In 2003 the cardinal dismissed Mr Murrillo’s allegations against Fr Karadima, years later admitting to the New York Times that he had “judged that the accusations were not credible”. Mr Cruz is scathing of the cardinal’s presence in the Holy Father’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, last year asking in the National Catholic Reporter, “Why would Pope Francis, who’s trying to clean up the Church, pick a man like Errázuriz who has done so much harm to so many by his actions?” 

It seems plausible that the cardinal, who sees himself as a reconciler, famously having argued that lawsuits against those involved in the Pinochet regime should be dropped since “excessive justice could be detrimental to reconciliation and social peace”, encouraged the Pontiff to go ahead with the appointment to help heal wounds Fr Karadima had caused in Chilean society.

A more straightforward explanation, however, may just be that Osorno needed a new bishop and Dr Barros was an experienced candidate, ordained bishop in 1995 and bishop to Chile’s 123,000-strong armed forces since 2004. 

The Congregation of Bishops may simply have thought his transfer to such a small and obscure backwater would scarcely raise a ripple of interest. 

If so, they could hardly have been more wrong. The current Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, has already pointed out that “a bishop can, eventually, resign”. 

The smart pesos are on that “eventually” coming sooner rather than later.