Pope Francis’ closest adviser on child protection has said the pontiff’s defence of a Chilean bishop accused of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse is a “source of great pain” for sexual abuse survivors.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the leader of a papal child safeguarding commission, said he could not explain why the Pope had described accusations that Bishop Juan Barros covered up the abuse of a high-profile priest as slanderous.
During his trip to Chile, Francis told reporters that not “one shred of proof” had been brought against Bishop Barros and the claims against the bishop are “all calumny”.
Barros, who the Pope controversially appointed to lead the Diocese of Osorno in 2015, is accused of knowing about – and even witnessing – the crimes of Fr Fernando Karadima. The Pope’s remarks defending Barros sent shockwaves through Chile and caused upset among Karadima’s victims who argue that Barros knew about the abuse. In 2011, the Vatican found Fr Karadima guilty of abusing three boys and sentenced to him to a lifetime of "prayer and penance".
In a statement released on Saturday Cardinal O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, said he could understand their hurt.
“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,” the cardinal explained. “Not having personally been involved in the cases that were the subject of yesterday’s interview I cannot address why the Holy Father chose the particular words he used at the time.”
Cardinal O’Malley emphasised, however, that the Pope “fully recognises the egregious failures of the Church and its clergy who abused children” and understands “the devastating impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones".
Nevertheless, his implicit rebuke of Francis’ handling of the Barros case is highly unusual by a cardinal to a Pope and fuels the perception that the 81-year-old Argentinian pontiff has not grasped the scale and magnitude of the clerical sexual abuse scandal.
Marie Collins, a prominent abuse survivor, has said recently that child protection was being given a “low priority” in the Vatican despite assurances from the Pope and cited a lack of new members to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Ms Collins, who resigned her membership of the commission in frustration at the slow pace of change, also argued that two Chilean church leaders sought to block attempts to appoint a Chilean abuse survivor to the papal safeguarding body.
Cardinal O’Malley travelled to Peru where he concelebrated Mass with the Pope in Lima. A Capuchin Friar – a branch of the Franciscan order following the teachings of the Pope’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi – there is no-one more experienced in dealing with the Church’s sex abuse crisis than O’Malley. He took over the Archdiocese of Boston following a high profile abuse cover-up exposed by the Boston Globe in a high-profile series of exclusive exposés that were documented in the Oscar-wining film Spotlight and also handled the aftermath of abuse scandals in Massachusetts and Florida.
On Friday 19 January, Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe commented: "Let the record show that the promise of Pope Francis died in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 18, in the year of our Lord 2018. When Pope Francis slandered victims of sexual abuse, ironically by accusing those very victims of slandering a Chilean bishop who was complicit in that abuse, he confirmed what some critics have said all along, what I have always resisted embracing: Pope Francis is a company man, no better than his predecessors when it comes to siding with the institutional Roman Catholic Church against any who would criticise it or those, even children, who have been victimised by it."
(Pic: Pope Francis leads an open-air mass at the beach resort town of Huanchaco, northwest of Trujillo,Peru, on January 20, 2018. The mass takes place on a wide swathe of beach able to accommodate 500,000 people. Credit: ABACAPRESS.COM/PA)