Pope Francis has faced a great deal of criticism since he leveled accusations of calumny against victims of clerical sex abuse last week. Those victims claim that Bishop Juan Barros, whom Pope Francis appointed to the Diocese of Osorno, Chile, on January 10, 2015, had first-hand knowledge of their abuser’s crimes and was an active participant in their cover-up.
The highest-ranking churchman to respond has been Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who is also a member of the C9 Council of Cardinal Advisors and the man the Holy Father personally chose to head the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (an organization for which people within and without the Church had high hopes when it was launched in 2014, but which quickly proved both toothless and dysfunctional, and now exists in a sort of juridical limbo, its members’ appointments having expired late last year without renewal or replacement).
“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator,” Cardinal O’Malley’s January 20 statement begins. It goes on to say, “Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”
Another prominent US churchman with ties to the Vatican, Father James Martin, SJ—who serves as a consultor to the Holy See’s Secretariat for Communications—is expressing disappointment over Pope Francis’ comments.
“Like many of Pope Francis’ admirers,” Father Martin told CWR when contacted about the story, “I was disappointed in the Pope’s comments regarding Bishop Barros’ accusers, and found Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s insights a much-needed contribution to the discussion.”
Father Martin recognized that Pope Francis made an effort to ease the hurt his words have caused. “To that end, I was also grateful to see the Pope’s apology,” Father Martin said. Nevertheless, he remains perplexed at the broader situation.
“In general, what mystifies me is that there is rarely, if ever, any hard and fast evidence in clergy sex abuse cases, because of the nature of the crimes ([viz.] someone preying on a child in private),” Father Martin said. “Consequently, we must take what the victims say very seriously, because, needless to say, there are not going to be photographs or records of any kind. Moreover, some of these same victims were believed in the case of Bishop Barros’ mentor, Father Karadima, so I’m not sure why we would suddenly disbelieve them now. As I said, it’s mystifying to me.”
Father Martin also said the Church must implement systems capable of holding the Church’s hierarchical leadership accountable.
“Until we see real accountability for bishops, we will not be able to get past the abuse crisis,” he said. “The papal commission, then, really needs teeth. In particular, bishops who have offended must be removed, and when they are removed it must be said that this is why they are being removed.”
Martin is not the only prominent US Jesuit to make such a call. Writing for Religion News Service, Father Thomas J. Reese argued, “The fundamental problem is that the Church has no process for judging bishops that is transparent and has legitimacy with the public.”
Pope Francis maintains that he has chosen to leave Bishop Barros in place, because, “There is not one shred of proof against him.” Pressed on the plane trip home from South America, the Pope explained, “The word ‘proof’ wasn’t the best [word to use] in order to be near to a sorrowful heart. I would say evidence. The case of Barros was studied, it was re-studied, and there is no evidence. That is what I wanted to say. I have no evidence to condemn. And if I were to condemn without evidence or without moral certainty, I would commit the crime of a bad judge.”
The Pope does have the claims of the three victims, though. Not to put too fine a point on it: that is evidence, in the form of witness testimony; witnesses a Vatican criminal tribunal believed when they said Father Fernando Karadima abused them. Barros, moreover, is one of four Karadima protégés to have been made bishops before their mentor’s crimes came to light. The accusations against Barros have been in the Chilean press at least since 2012.
So, it simply is not true that Pope Francis has no evidence. Pope Francis does not believe the witnesses.
Why the Pope would choose not to believe the victims’ witness against Bishop Barros now, when his own court has found them credible, is, as Father Martin says, “mystifying.” It also raises a serious question about the Holy Father’s governance of the Universal Church. The presumption of innocence, in its strict juridical sense, is the explicit basis on which the Holy Father has justified his behavior in the Barros case. Even if the Holy Father is correctly applying the principle—and there are strong reasons to believe he is not—it is not the standard a prudent leader employs in making personnel decisions.