What did Pope Francis know about Chile, and when did he know it?

Frank admission of specific failures of governance will be necessary if the Pope wants to have a chance — as he says he does — at being part of the solution to the problem.

Pope Francis arrives in procession with other bishops during Mass at the Maquehue Airport near Temuco, Chile, Jan. 17. The bishops of Chile will be at the Vatican May 14-17 for meetings with Pope Francis to discuss their handling of clerical sex abuse allegations. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-CHILE-BISHOPS May 10, 2018.

The Chilean bishops are converging on Rome for an emergency meeting this week to which Pope Francis has summoned them in response to the explosion of the clerical sexual abuse crisis and related scandals in their country. Pope Francis is largely responsible for the explosion of the scandal — the crisis is another matter — having garnered international media attention and intense criticism when he accused Chilean sex abuse victims of calumny and then doubled down on his accusation before relenting, ordering an investigation, and eventually recanting.

If all that leads to a real address and remedy of the situation in Chile and the worldwide Church, it may prove to have been to the good. Nevertheless, he was, in his own estimation, “part of the problem,” according to witnesses who heard him say it.

In the letter he wrote to the bishops of Chile in April, after reading a 2300-page dossier from his special investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, Pope Francis wrote, “I believe I can affirm that the collected testimonies speak in a stark way, without additives or sweeteners, of many crucified lives and I confess to you that that causes me pain and shame.” He went on in the letter to say, “As for my own responsibility, I acknowledge, and I want you to faithfully convey it that way, that I have made serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of the situation, especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information.”

There is a great deal about the situation in Chile that we do not know. Based on what we do know, it is difficult to understand precisely what Pope Francis means by, “the lack of truthful and balanced information.”

There was a letter from Juan Carlos Cruz (one of the victims Francis had accused of calumny) rehearsing in gruesome detail his abuser’s predations and the role he alleges bishop Juan Barros played in their coverup.­ (Barros is at the center of the scandal that is proximate cause of the investigation and the upcoming meeting, after Pope Francis put Barros on the See of Osorno in 2015 despite the objections of clergy and laity in the diocese.)

The President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, is supposed to have delivered the letter to the Holy Father in person. Did he? If he did, it is difficult to understand how Pope Francis can say he “lacked truthful and balanced information.” Cardinal O’Malley’s spokesman has confirmed delivering the letter. And Pope Francis has not denied receiving it.

If Pope Francis did receive the letter, but did not read it, he needs to explain why he did not. If he received it and read it, but decided not to credit or otherwise heed the contents of it, that simply is not a state of affairs for which “[lack of] truthful and balanced information,” is an adequate description. It is one thing not to have information. It is quite another to have it, and disregard it.

What happened to the letter from Cruz is as important an outstanding question as what — if anything — the Pope did with it. Those questions, however, are not crucial to understanding that the Pope’s handling of this whole matter has been gravely inadequate. His failures of leadership, moreover, may not necessarily be attributable to want of information.

Pope Francis also apparently knew of the accusations against Barros and of the grounds on which clergy and faithful in Osorno and throughout the country objected to his appointment. The Pope wrote to the bishops of Chile in 2015, in response to a letter from them in which they explained their reasons for believing it best that Barros should not be seated. In his reply, the Holy Father said that he understood the bishops’ concerns and was aware — in January, 2015 — of the difficult situation of the Church in Chile, as well as of “all the trials [the Church] has had to undergo.”

While he might now protest to the effect that he thought he was well informed at the time, but really was not, the information he did have in January 2015 was enough to raise doubts regarding the opportunity of seating Barros in Osorno or anywhere. In fact, the Holy Father was convinced it would be best that Barros (and the other bishops in positions of responsibility, who had been protégés of their country’s most notorious pedophile cleric) take a year’s sabbatical — often church-speak for early and quiet retirement. The letter to the Chilean bishops — obtained by the AP and dated Jan 31, 2015, reads:

I well remember your visit in February of last year and all the different proposals which I thought were prudent and constructive.

However, a serious problem came up at the end of the year. The Nuncio [Archbishop Ivo Scapolo] asked Bishop Barros to resign and encouraged him to take a sabbatical (for perhaps a year) before assuming any other responsibilities as a [diocesan] bishop. And he told him the same course of action would be taken with the bishops of Talca and Linares, but that nothing should be said to them. Bishop Barros wrote a resignation letter adding [or including – Spanish añadiendo] the Nuncio’s comment.

As you can comprehend, the Nuncio’s comment complicated and blocked any eventual path to offering a year’s sabbatical.

Why Barros’s mention of the Nuncio’s remark should have torpedoed the plan for a quiet sail into the sunset is not at all clear to anyone not in the know, and may not really be any clearer to those who are. In any case, it is more than extremely difficult to see how putting Barros in a diocese should have been any sort of solution. Still, that is what happened, and here we are.

Frank admission of specific failures of governance will be necessary if the Pope wants to have a chance — as he says he does — at being part of the solution to the problem. Transparency will be equally important. Said bluntly, Pope Francis cannot be a credible leader on this issue unless he tells the whole story and tells it straight, even and especially when it will be painful to do so.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 237 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. I can only imagine that this pontiff will twist this grave injustice into an opportunity to do more damage to the Church.

  2. The Pope who famously declared “Who am I to judge?” with regard to active homosexual priests has now decided he will in fact judge one or two, but only because outrage in the Church and the entire world has reached blazing intensity, due directly and principally to his own negligent and reckless incompetence. Mr. Altieri’s ludicrous attempt to pretend that Pope Bergoglio’s grievous moral culpability somehow turns upon when (and whether) he received (and read) the O’Malley/Cruz letter ignores that for years he was presented with massive objective evidence of the deviant perversions of Karadima and Barros and chose to ignore it and even finally to attack publicly the witnesses as liars and calumniators. In virtually every article Mr. Altieri writes, he chooses to deal narrowly and selectively with the available facts in order to present an ideologically “normalist” position. Before offering his bromide that Pope Bergoglio “cannot be a credible leader on this issue unless he tells the whole story and tells it straight, even and especially when it will be painful to do so,” he should take heed of the ancient proverb: “Physician, health thyself.”

    • Who would ever imagine that it would be necessary to weigh whether the Supreme Roman Pontiff is telling the truth or behaving like a mendacious and corrupt President Nixon? It shows how far we have fallen in 45 years in the Church.

      • I would amend that to the last 5 years, not the last 45.

        History teaches us that throughout the life of the Church reform has come from the bottom – the laity.

  3. Can he be too old? Might he have dementia? Lifetime appointments are becoming obsolete. The church needs to make a major improvement to selection of the Pope… eliminate the college of Cardinals set a 10 year tenure.

    • Oh, give it a rest, already, morganB. You want to remake the Church in your image, we get it, you pretty much think you’re God. You persist in saying “The Church” (of course you don’t capitalize it) *needs* to do this or that, as if the fact that it is your personal opinion that something should change is sufficient to make it an absolute need of the Church, because of course Divine guidance and the traditions of the Church mean nothing compared to your ideas.

      • How astute, leslie. I’m right about the age limits. I am also 80 and can quickly put myself in the Popes sandals. The College of Cardinals is just a group of elderly men… a poor pool to take from to choose a Pope. I’m still looking for that shinny basilica on the hill. The Church can do betted.

  4. Let’s use our adult readers on this one.
    When we the public became aware of the dilemma surrounding the appointment Bishop Barros (who has been a bishop for over twenty-two years) to the episcopal see of Osorno we also became aware of the accusations against him – and of the abhorrent situation out of which they emerged.
    We can safely say that the pope was at least aware at the moment when we were aware.
    When we knew, he knew.
    And at that moment it was most urgent for the appointment of Bishop Barros to be immediately withdrawn. If he was innocent as I assume he was – for his own welfare, physical, psychological and spiritual. There is no need to subject an innocent man to such harassment. If not an act of sadism it was surely another mindless demonstration of abuse of ecclesiastical authority to persist when charges of such gross gravity were asserted – and believed – by the faithful of the diocese. And if Bishop Barros himself truly wished to go forward with the appointment at that moment it was if not masochistic, a demonstration of unbridled hubris and an appetite for power, position and advancement. Enough of a reason in itself for the appointment to be set aside.
    And what has the investigation produced? And for that matter what is going on with the Maradiaga affair? Accountability, anyone?
    That Pope Francis could not make this common sense assessment speaks loudly yet again of his unsuitability for the office to which he continues to clutch despite almost daily mounting evidence that this situation is not for the glory of God.

  5. I wonder if there is any chance that the obvious danger of another series of abuse scandals will convince Church leaders that the Chile debacle is not in isolation. What about Cardinal Maradiaga and Bishop Juan José Pineda of Honduras? Pineda’s critics claim him to be more culpable than Barros and Maradiaga (who operates under a serious cloud of financial scandal in addition to the Pineda abuse charges) is one of the closest associates of Francis at the Vatican. The abuse scandal that arose around Bishop Law fifteen years back was a catastrophe for the Church. There can be no repeat. But Francis is not showing the concern for this issue that is needed.

    • Years ago when I was in religious life and “the scandal” was emerging, I recall it being said — very much in a professional context — wait until the third world facet of this “explodes.”
      There is much that could be offered about this issue. It is very complex and needs desperately to be seen within the context of culture in order to be understood and properly addressed. And believe it or not, our Church has provided a far more honest response than any other faith community or professional entity. Government run school systems come to mind as well as youth organizations. The recent Olympic trainer horror story is not unique. Casting aside vigilance in regard to the virtue of chastity cast aside has had tragic consequences.

  6. When I was a child, cradle Catholic here, I was taught that whoever was elected Pope, was the one chosen by the Holy Spirit for that Office. As one who has read up on the histories of the Popes, I know now, that is not necessarily true. Of great concern, is that the Pope we now have, was not the choice of the Holy Spirit, but was the choice of those who are working to slowly, steadily, loosen bit by bit, the foundations of the Church while covering over their works with beautiful flowery truths, see Amoris Laetitia, so that the real excavation and removal of the anchors takes place in a mostly hidden manner. Read The Dictator Pope if you have not already done so. How this meeting with Pope Crancis and the Chilean Bishops turns out, could well be the clear anchor pin into Pope Francis’ character. We will see. God bless, C-Marie

  7. Eric, you are correct. The Chilean debacle is not in isolation. America has a similar problem. Bishops in place who covered for priests who would abuse. I KNOW of an American cardinal who did that. He did not deal with this problem in his previous scandal ridden archdiocese. In his lust for power and promotion, he was not going to let the abuse of teen aged boys get in his way. Will he be removed? I doubt it.

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