On Thursday of last week, Pope Francis accused Chilean victims of clerical sexual abuse and their supporters in the Church of “calumny”. It isn’t that the Pope doesn’t believe their accusations of abuse. After the Vatican found their accusations credible, and sentenced their abuser, Fr. Fernando Karadima, to a life of prayer and penance – this was in 2011, under Benedict XVI – Pope Francis decided in 2015 to put one of the criminal cleric’s protégés, Bishop Juan Barros, on the See of Osorno, over the objections of the victims, at least one of whom, Mr. Juan Carlos Cruz, says Bishop Barros knew of his mentor’s crimes and even witnessed them.
Things took an ugly turn, when, later in the same year of Barros’ election to the See of Osorno, Francis insulted the people protesting Barros’ appointment. “The Osorno community is suffering because it’s dumb,” the Pope told a group of pilgrims on the sidelines of a General Audience in May of 2015.
The story made the rounds in the worldwide press at the time, and then disappeared.
When a Chilean journalist, who was part of a press gaggle at the gate of the venue in Iquique, where the Holy Father was to celebrate Mass on Thursday of last week, asked Pope Francis about Bishop Barros, the Pope replied, “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak.” Then he doubled down. “There is not one shred of proof against [Barros],” he said. “It’s all calumny, is that clear?”
On the plane home from Perù – the second and final leg of his South American voyage – Pope Francis revised and extended his remarks, saying, “[If] anyone says with obstinacy, without evidence, that [so-and-so] did [such-and-such], it is calumny.” He then said that Barros’ accusers have brought him no evidence, and concluded, “One that accuses without evidence, with obstinacy, this is calumny.”
The first thing to note is the Pope’s problematic use of the term “calumny”, which is not the leveling of accusations in the absence of evidence, but the leveling of accusations for the purpose of damaging another person’s reputation, and/or the repetition of such accusations for the same malicious purpose, without respect to the truth of the accusations. A person who claims to have seen someone commit a crime, however, is not accusing without evidence. The evidence he brings is essentially co-extensive with his own credibility as a witness. In the case of Bishop Juan Barros, his principal accuser is a witness, whose testimony a Vatican court found credible enough to use against Barros’ mentor, Fr. Fernando Karadima.
This would not be the first time Pope Francis’ lexical idiosyncrasies were cause for confusion. I still have not met anyone trained in the sacred sciences who can tell me what Francis means when he speaks of “casuistry” – or “abstract casuistry” – though it is clear he does not mean what is generally meant by the term, i.e. the resolution of moral problems by investigation into the specifics of the case and careful application of the general principles of moral science to the specific case, from within the specifics of the case, themselves.
In this case, the trouble is that no one is asking the right questions.
Why is Pope Francis taking a series of maxims lifted from criminal law, and applying them to a personnel decision? Also during the course of the in-flight presser, in explaining his analysis of the Barros case, Pope Francis said, “I am waiting for evidence to change position [on Barros], but I apply the judicial principle basic in any tribunal: nemo malus nisi provetur – no one is guilty until it is proven [so].” At the risk of belaboring the obvious: the “presumption of innocence” applies to criminal procedure; the only protection it can afford Bishop Barros is found on the other side of a criminal indictment. The other maxim, in dubio pro reo, which Pope Francis invoked in defense of his decision to reduce the sentence against the convicted pedophile, Fr. Mauro Inzoli – over and against the recommendation of the Vatican’s own tribunal – applies principally to the determination of guilt, which in the case of Inzoli was never in doubt, and in any case would have been well known to the legal professionals and trained jurists who handled the case and gave the sentence.
The problem here is not that the Pope has a poor grasp of technical legal terminology. The problem is not even that he keeps using those words, even though they do not mean what he thinks they mean. The former is merely a fact; he is not a lawyer, after all. The latter is symptomatic of an unfortunate quirk of character, which might be overcome or overlooked. The real problem is that he thinks he knows better, and refuses to listen to the people who do. While that quality of character will be frustrating in a parish priest, consternating in a religious superior, and genuinely difficult to manage in a local Ordinary, it will always – always – prove disastrous in anyone who attains to a position of high leadership.
There is another, prior question, though, which no one is asking: Why is Barros a bishop in the first place? During the presser, Pope Francis gave a summary of the matter, saying, “When the scandal with Karadima was discovered – we all know this scandal – we began to see many priests who were formed by Karadima, who were either abused or who were abusers.” That is what abusers do. They insinuate themselves and their favorites – some of whom are also their victims – into the formation process and then into the leadership structures of the Church, and use their advantages of place and position to protect and promote one another.
“In Chile,” Pope Francis went on to say, “there are four bishops, whom Karadima invited to the seminary.” Barros is one of the four. He was consecrated in June of 1995, when Pope St. John Paul II was in Rome and Archbishop Piero Biggio was Nuncio in Chile. Barros served first as an auxiliary in Valparaiso, then moved to the See of Iquique, then to the Diocese for Military Services. When the See of Osorno became vacant, Francis tapped Barros, even though he was known to have advanced under the aegis of a notorious pedophile, and faced allegations of aiding and abetting his mentor’s abuse, allegations that came from at least one victim, whose testimony a Vatican court had deemed credible.
The bishops of Chile had written to Pope Francis, expressing their concern over Barros’ appointment. Francis responded with a lengthy letter, explaining that he had asked Barros to resign as bishop to the forces and take a year’s sabbatical, only after which he might have been considered for another post. The AP reports that Francis’ Nuncio in Chile, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, conveyed the request, and explained to Barros that similar arrangements were being made for two of the other bishops who came up under Karadima. Scapolo reportedly asked Barros to keep the plan quiet, but Barros named the two others in the letter he wrote announcing his resignation from the military see.
So, Francis decided that the way to handle this tainted and insubordinate prelate was to give him care of the souls of Osorno.
“When [Barros] was appointed [to Osorno],” Pope Francis said, again during the in-flight presser, “and all this protest took place, he gave me his resignation for the second time. I said, ‘No, you go.’ I spoke with him for a long time, others spoke at length with him. ‘You go [back to your See]’,” Pope Francis told reporters he told Barros. The Holy Father went on to say, “They continued to investigate Barros, but there is no evidence – and this is what I wanted to say,” in the remarks outside the venue in Iquique. “I cannot condemn him because I don’t have the evidence,” Pope Francis repeated, “and this is what I wanted to say. I cannot condemn him because I do not have the evidence. But I am also convinced that he is innocent.”
In short, Pope Francis feels he has to leave Barros in place, because he does not have enough evidence to convict him in open court, and because he is personally convinced of Barros’ innocence.
Speaking in Santiago de Chile in 2011, after the Vatican court came back with the guilty verdict against Karadima, Fr. Antonio Delfau, SJ, of the Chilean province – currently serving as Assistant to the General Treasurer of the Society – is quoted in a New York Times report on the story as saying, “[The conviction] is going to mark a before and after in the way the Chilean Catholic Church proceeds in cases like these, or at least it should.” Delfau went on to say, “From now on, every case of sexual abuse must be treated with meticulous care and not be based on the gut feeling of a given Church official.”