Politicians and some church leaders in Chile have demanded the resignation of Juan Barros, Pope Francis’s tapped appointment as bishop of Osorno on January 10th, 2015 (took effect on March 21st) in southern Chile, following allegations that he helped cover up – and at times participated in – abuse against minors by his longtime mentor, a priest called Fernando Karadima. This, in spite of the fact that Pope Francis received a victim’s letter in 2015 that graphically detailed how a priest sexually abused him and how other Chilean clergy ignored it, contradicting the pope’s recent insistence that no victims had come forward to denounce the cover-up, the letter’s author and members of have told The Associated Press.
The case has consequences far beyond Chile, given Pope Francis’s repeated promises to confront the abuse scandals. Victims’ rights activists are calling for the pontiff’s intervention in the case following an outcry by parishioners in the region. However, Barros has the full weight of the Vatican behind him. Priests in Osorno say the pope’s choice has left them “confused and irritated”.
In Santiago, the nation’s capital, Father Alex Vigueras, a priest in the congregation of the Sacred Hearts, said the appointment “is not attuned with the zero tolerance [policy on pedophilia] that is trying to be installed in the church”. “It is hard for us to believe that [Pope Francis] would have confirmed this nomination had he had all the background information on the table,” he wrote in an editorial entitled “Bishop Juan Barros Should Resign”.
Opposition to Barros from Chile’s large and devout Catholic community is based on a number of allegations by victims who named him as a key figure in cases of sexual abuse by Karadima. They claim that he not only helped cover up the crimes, but in some instances observed the abuse.
Karadima led the parish of El Bosque for nearly six decades before allegations came to light in April 2010, when a news investigation into the abuse was broadcast on state television. Two months later, the archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, forwarded the allegations to the Vatican amid an eruption of abuse cases globally.
Victims say allegations against Karadima were reported earlier, but were ignored by the cardinal. Errazuriz, who is one of nine cardinals on Pope Francis’ key advisory panel, has acknowledged in court testimony that he failed to act on several abuse allegations because he believed them to be untrue.
Karadima was found guilty of molestation by the Vatican in 2011 and is now living a cloistered life of solitude in “penitence and prayer” in a convent in Chile. Criminal charges against Karadima were dismissed in 2011 by Judge Jessica Gonzalez because the statute of limitations had expired. However, Gonzalez said that based on her interviews of Cruz and other victims during her yearlong investigation, she determined their accusations were truthful and dated “at least as far back as 1962.”
Juan Carlos Cruz recalls that he and another teen boy would lie down on the priest’s bed, one resting his head at the man’s shoulder, another sitting near his feet. The priest would kiss the boys and grope them, he said, all while the Rev. Juan Barros watched. “Barros was there, and he saw it all,” Cruz, now a 51-year-old journalist, told The Associated Press.
A letter detailing abuse allegations against Karadima was sent by some victims to Cardinal Francisco Fresno in 1982. But authors of the letter accuse Barros, who then was the cardinal’s private secretary, of intercepting it and destroying it.
Francisco Gomez, 52, a publicist who says he was molested by Karadima, told the AP that he signed the letter drafted by two other victims. A friend of his who worked with Fresno, Juan Hoelzzel, told Gomez that Barros ripped it up after reading it – an account that was recorded in testimony during the criminal investigation. Speaking to the AP, Gomez said he was told by Hoelzzel: “As long as Juan Barros is there, there is no doubt that this will happen again.”
During Karadima’s criminal trial, Barros confirmed that Hoelzzel, who has since died, had worked in the archbishop’s office. Regarding the letter, court documents quote Barros as saying he had “no knowledge” of its existence, adding “I neither deny it nor affirm it.” Cruz has said that during the time he was abused, Karadima and Barros behaved intimately with one another in his presence.
“I saw Karadima and Juan Barros kissing and touching each other. The groping generally came from Karadima touching Barros’ genitals,” Cruz said in a January letter to Monsignor Ivo Scapolo, the papal nuncio in Chile. Cruz provided a copy of the letter to the AP.
Despite Francis’ pledge to have no tolerance for abuse by priests, James Hamilton, another victim of Karadima’s, said the appointment demonstrates to him that the church “had not changed.”
Hamilton, now a 49-year-old doctor, said Barros enjoyed watching Karadima commit the abuse.
Pope Francis received a newly written letter of warning from Cruz in 2015 that graphically detailed how a priest sexually abused him and how other Chilean clergy ignored it, contradicting the pope’s recent insistence that no victims had come forward to denounce the cover-up, the letter’s author and members ofhave told The Associated Press.
The fact that Francis received the eight-page letter, obtained by the AP, challenges hisand cover-ups. It also calls into question his stated empathy with abuse survivors, compounding the most serious crisis of his five-year papacy.
The scandal exploded in January 2018 when Francis’ trip to South America was marred by protests over his vigorous. During the trip, as “slander,” seemingly unaware that victims had placed him at the scene of Karadima’s crimes.
On the plane home, confronted by an AP reporter, the pope said: “You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward.” But members of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors say that in April 2015, they sent a delegation to Rome specifically to hand-deliver a letter to the pope about Barros. The letter from Juan Carlos Cruz detailed the abuse, kissing and fondling he says he suffered at Karadima’s hands, which he said Barros and others witnessed and ignored.
Four members of the commission met with Francis’ top abuse adviser, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, explained their objections to Francis’ appointment of Barros as a bishop in southern Chile, and gave him the letter to deliver to Francis.
“When we gave him (O’Malley) the letter for the pope, he assured us he would give it to the pope and speak of the concerns,” then-commission member Marie Collins told the AP. “And at a later date, he assured us that that had been done.” Cruz, who now lives and works in Philadelphia, heard the same later that year. “Cardinal O’Malley called me after the pope’s visit here in Philadelphia and he told me, among other things, that he had given the letter to the pope – in his hands,” he said in an interview at his home. Neither the Vatican nor O’Malley responded to multiple requests for comment.
While the 2015 summit of Francis’ commission was known and publicized at the time, the contents of Cruz’s letter – and a photograph of Collins handing it to O’Malley – were not disclosed by members. Cruz provided the letter, and Collins provided the photo, after reading an AP story that reported Francis had claimed to have never heard from any Karadima victims about Barros’ behavior.
Cruz described how Karadima would kiss Barros and fondle his genitals, and do the same with younger priests and teens, and how young priests and seminarians would fight to sit next to Karadima at the table to receive his affections.
“More difficult and tough was when we were in Karadima’s room and Juan Barros – if he wasn’t kissing Karadima – would watch when Karadima would touch us – the minors – and make us kiss him, saying: ‘Put your mouth near mine and stick out your tongue.’ He would stick his out and kiss us with his tongue,” Cruz told the pope. “Juan Barros was a witness to all this innumerable times, not just with me but with others as well.”
“Juan Barros covered up everything that I have told you,” he added.
Barros has repeatedly denied witnessing any abuse or covering it up. “I never knew anything about, nor ever imagined, the serious abuses which that priest committed against the victims,” he told the AP recently. “I have never approved of nor participated in such serious, dishonest acts, and I have never been convicted by any tribunal of such things.”
For the Osorno faithful who have opposed Barros as their bishop, the issue isn’t so much a legal matter requiring proof or evidence, as Barros was a young priest at the time and not in a position of authority over Karadima. It’s more that if Barros didn’t “see” what was happening around him and doesn’t find it problematic for a priest to kiss and fondle young boys, he shouldn’t be in charge of a diocese where he is responsible for detecting inappropriate sexual behavior, reporting it to police and protecting children from pedophiles like his mentor.
Cruz had arrived at Karadima’s community in 1980 as a vulnerable teenager, distraught after the recent death of his father. He has said Karadima told him he would be like a spiritual father to him, but instead sexually abused him.
By the time he finally got his letter into the pope’s hands in 2015, Cruz had already sent versions to many other people, and had tried for months to get an appointment with the Vatican ambassador. The embassy’s Dec. 15, 2014, email to Cruz – a month before Barros was appointed – was short and to the point:
“The apostolic nunciature has received the message you emailed Dec. 7 to the apostolic nuncio,” it read, “and at the same time communicates that your request has been met with an unfavorable response.”
One could argue that Francis didn’t pay attention to Cruz’s letter, since he receives thousands of letters every day from faithful around the world. He can’t possibly read them all, much less remember the contents years later. He might have been tired and confused after a weeklong trip to South America when he told an airborne press conference that victims never came forward to accuse Barros of cover-up.
But this was not an ordinary letter, nor were the circumstances under which it arrived in the Vatican.
Francis had named O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, to head his Commission for the Protection of Minors based on his credibility in having helped clean up the mess in Boston after the U.S. sex abuse scandal exploded there in 2002. The commission gathered outside experts to advise the church on protecting children from pedophiles and educating church personnel about preventing abuse and cover-ups.
The four commission members who were on a special subcommittee dedicated to survivors had flown to Rome specifically to speak with O’Malley about the Barros appointment and to deliver Cruz’s letter. A press release issued after the April 12, 2015, meeting read: “Cardinal O’Malley agreed to present the concerns of the subcommittee to the Holy Father.”
Commission member Catherine Bonnet, a French child psychiatrist who took the photo of Collins handing the letter to O’Malley, said the commission members had decided to descend on Rome specifically when O’Malley and other members of the pope’s group of nine cardinal advisers were meeting, so that O’Malley could put it directly into the pope’s hands. “Cardinal O’Malley promised us when Marie gave to him the letter of Juan Carlos that he will give to Pope Francis,” she said. O’Malley’s spokesman in Boston referred requests for comment to the Vatican. Neither the Vatican press office, nor officials at the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, responded to calls and emails seeking comment.
But O’Malley’s remarkable response to Francis’ defense of Barros and to his dismissal of the victims while he was in Chile, is perhaps now better understood. In a rare rebuke of a pope by a cardinal, O’Malley issued a statement Jan. 20 in which he said the pope’s words were “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse,” and that such expressions had the effect of abandoning victims and relegating them to “discredited exile.”
A day later, Francis apologized for having demanded “proof” of wrongdoing by Barros, saying he meant merely that he wanted to see “evidence.” But he continued to describe the accusations against Barros as “calumny” and insisted he had never heard from any victims. Even when told in his airborne press conference Jan. 21 that Karadima’s victims had indeed placed Barros at the scene of Karadima’s abuse, Francis said: “No one has come forward. They haven’t provided any evidence for a judgment. This is all a bit vague. It’s something that can’t be accepted.”
He stood by Barros, saying: “I’m certain he’s innocent,” even while saying that he considered the testimony of victims to be “evidence” in a cover-up investigation. “If anyone can give me evidence, I’ll be the first to listen,” he said. Cruz said he felt like he had been slapped when he heard those words. “I was upset,” he said, “and at the same time I couldn’t believe that someone so high up like the pope himself could lie about this.”
More than 1,300 church members in Osorno, along with some 30 priests from the diocese and 51 of Chile’s 120 members of Parliament, sent letters to Francis in February urging him to rescind the appointment, which was announced in January and is set to take effect on March 21.
Anne Barrett Doyle from BishopAccountability.org, an online resource about abusive priests and complicit bishops, called the appointment “bafflingly inconsistent” with Francis’ promise to root out abuse. “The pope should have suspended and investigated Barros, not given him another diocese to run,” Barrett Doyle said in an email to the AP.
From 2004 until his 2015 appointment, Barros had been bishop for Chile’s military, an appointment made by Pope John Paul II. Previously, he was assistant bishop in the port city of Valparaiso and bishop of the northern city of Iquique. No representatives of his former dioceses have spoken out in his defense.