Even judged only on its perceptible consequences, the crisis in the Catholic Church over the sexual abuse of minors at the hands of clerics is the worst to face the Church since the time of the Protestant Reformation.
This is why the announcement of Pope Francis’ decision to send Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna to Osorno to hear evidence against Bishop Juan Barros—coming as it does on the heels of unprecedented public criticism of Pope Francis’ statements on the case—is too little, too late.
Pope Francis has publicly expressed his doubts about the accusations of several victims of the disgraced Father Fernando Karadima, who accuse Bishop Barros of covering for their abuser—accusations that have been public since at least 2012, several years before the Holy Father appointed Barros to the See of Osorno.
On Tuesday, the Press Office of the Holy See announced:
Following recently received information regarding the case of H.E. Msgr. Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid, Bishop of Osorno (Chile), the Holy Father Francis has arranged for H.E. Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, Archbishop of Malta and President of the College for the examination of appeals (in matters of delicta graviora) at the Ordinary Session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to go to Santiago de Chile to hear those who have expressed their willingness to submit elements in their possession.
The announcement of Archbishop Scicluna’s mission raises more questions than it answers. Some of them are:
- Precisely what information was recently received by the Holy See?
- How recently, exactly, did this information arrive?
- With what powers is Scicluna going? (Power to discover? To compel?)
- Will Scicluna interview Barros (and if so, with what powers, and in what capacity)?
Catholic World Report put those questions to the director of the Vatican’s Press Office, Greg Burke, who declined to answer them.
The choice of Archbishop Scicluna for the mission is in itself entirely unexceptionable, even praiseworthy. Before he became archbishop of Malta, Scicluna had a long career as Promotor of Justice—i.e., prosecutor—with experience as an investigator in difficult cases, including that of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Scicluna also investigated the allegations against Cardinal Keith O’Brien in Edinburgh, who eventually admitted to inappropriate behavior with seminarians and retired to a life of seclusion, keeping his red hat even though he lost all his privileges. Scicluna also had a significant role in the legislative reform under Benedict XVI, which streamlined and facilitated the processes involved in investigating, prosecuting, and removing abusive priests.
Nevertheless, the nature and scope of Archbishop Scicluna’s mission in Chile remains unclear.
What we do know is that the decision to send Archbishop Scicluna came in the wake of public criticism without precedent in this pontificate, both for its intensity and for the high place and closeness of the quarters from which it came. After Francis leveled charges of “calumny” against Father Karadima’s victims, Cardinal Sean O’Malley stated that the Pope’s words caused victims “great pain.” Father Thomas J. Reese, SJ, said Francis “just doesn’t get it when it comes to victims of abuse.” America’s editor-at-large, Father James Martin, SJ, described himself as “disappointed” and “mystified” by the Pope’s remarks. The editors of the National Catholic Reporter declared: “Francis’ commitment to abuse survivors in question.”
The plain fact of the matter is this: Pope Francis’ public record since assuming office speaks for itself.
He created a toothless advisory body, making a show of accepting its one major recommendation—a special section within the criminal court at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to be tasked with trying cases of episcopal negligence in handling abuse—before scrapping the project in favor of paper guarantees and setting the bureaucracy back to business as usual.
He acquiesced to the underhanded dismissal (under the guise of a “leave of absence”) of the more stridently outspoken of two abuse survivor-members of the toothless commission, Mr. Peter Saunders. Saunders had criticized the Holy Father’s appointment of Bishop Barros to Osorno and of Cardinal George Pell to the Secretariat for the Economy (Pell responded to Saunders’ criticism with a statement that included a threat of legal action).
Francis restored the disgraced Cardinal Godfried Danneels to honorable service at the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, years after audio recordings emerged in which Danneels is heard urging an abuse victim not to name his abuser (the victim’s own uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe).
He named the archbishop-emeritus of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony—who notoriously mishandled abuse cases when at the helm in LA—as his personal representative at celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is still reeling from the abuse crisis and was as recently as 2016 the subject of a statewide criminal investigation.
He reduced the sentences imposed by his own court against two clerics guilty of molesting children, restoring them to the clerical state, only to dismiss one of them—Mauro Inzoli—after “new” evidence of wrongdoing emerged and an Italian criminal court convicted him of abusing five children aged 12-16.
He sat on information he had directly from deaf victims at the Antonio Provolo Institute in Verona, allowing their abuser—by then transferred to another school in the Pope’s native Argentina—to continue abusing children, waiting years before passing responsibility for any eventual investigation to the Italian Bishops’ Conference.
He scoffed at the clergy and faithful of Osorno, saying their suffering over his decision to entrust their diocese to Bishop Barros was “foolishness” and the result of their letting themselves be led by the nose by “leftists.”
He repeatedly accused the three abuse victims at the center of the Osorno controversy of calumny, even though his own court had found them to be credible witnesses.
Archbishop Scicluna is a highly experienced investigator and a skilled lawyer, who is genuinely dedicated to the pursuit of justice and the service of the Church. He is not perfect—no one is—but there is no doubt he will do his best, and no doubt he deserves the full support of the whole Church as he carries out his work.
At the end of the day, though, this is not about Archbishop Scicluna. This is not even about Bishop Barros, who in any case has rights and deserves justice, whether he is guilty or innocent, as do his accusers. This is about the Catholic faithful, who expect and deserve better—much better—than an ad hoc response to a bad couple of weeks in the press, followed by a return to normale amministrazione. Ultimately, this is about the credibility of the Church as carrier of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. High-sounding words and grand gestures cannot repair the damage Pope Francis has wrought. We are way past that now.