Pope Francis falters on bishop accused of mishandling sexual abuse

Bishop Juan Barros attends his first Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Osorno, Chile, March 21 (CNS photo/Carlos Gutierrez, Reuters).

The new movie “Spotlight,” focusing on The Boston Globe’s coverage of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy in Boston, reminds us of the need to be vigilant about abuse in the church—and indeed anywhere. And the Catholic Church has made great strides in combating abuse. That is why Pope Francis’ comments about the alleged cover-up by the recently installed bishop of the Diocese of Osorno, in Chile, were disheartening. “Please, don’t lose your calm,” Pope Francis said in October to a group of pilgrims at the Vatican in remarks that later became public. “Osorno is suffering, yes, but for being dumb.” 

Bishop Juan Barros had been a protégé of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a charismatic priest who has been accused of sexual abuse. Father Karadima has denied any wrongdoing but was nonetheless ordered to a life of “prayer and penance” by the Vatican, which clearly found sufficient cause to do so. (One victim accused then-Father Barros of being present during an incident of abuse.) The anger in Chile over this case was so intense that a raucous crowd showed up to protest at Bishop Barros’s installation Mass. But Osorno, said the pope, “has let its head be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof.”

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The case of Bishop Barros is complex. But there are credible accusations involved, and not everyone who opposes his installation as bishop is “dumb.” Peter Saunders, a lay member of the papal advisory committee on abuse who himself is a survivor of abuse, called the pope’s comments a “grave error.” Sexual abuse needs to be confronted at every turn in our church. The smart thing to do would be not to dismiss complaints but rather to continue to focus the church’s spotlight on this great sin.

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Molly Roach
2 years 10 months ago
Crime. It's a crime. Treating it as a "sin" is part of what got us going in the exactly wrong direction.
Concerned Catholic
2 years 10 months ago
Good for the editors. Its not easy to directly critique any pope, much less the first Jesuit one in whom so much hope has been placed, by the premiere Jesuit publication. Although some progress has been made, from diocese, to province to parish, far too much resistance to facing the ongoing crisis of child sexual abuse still exists. As the editors point out, not only the moral thing, but the smart thing, is for the church to focus the spotlight on child sex abuse. A crime, the worst crime, to be sure, but an even higher standard should be followed by the church. Francis has shown he can make grave errors, and then go the other way and recover. There is no avoiding facing this directly. Thank God for the leadership and model in being a conscientious Catholic shown to us by Peter Saunders. Because both morally and institutionally, as the editors seem to understand, only the unvarnished truth and commensurate action can save the children, the church, and set us free on this issue.
Ashley McKinless
2 years 9 months ago

Thank you for your comment. A reminder that it is our policy that all commenters sign with their full first and last name.

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