Osorno Bishop Juan Barros smiles as he leaves the altar after Mass was celebrated by Pope Francis on Lobito Beach in Iquique, Chile, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. The Vatican said Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 that Maltese Bishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's most respected sex crimes expert, would travel to Chile "to listen to those who have expressed the desire to provide elements" about the case of Bishop Juan Barros, accused by abuse victims of covering up for the country's most notorious pedophile priest. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis turns the corner on the abuse scandal

On Wednesday, Pope Francis issued a letter of apology to the bishops of Chile for his handling of the their country's sex abuse crisis. It is an extraordinary document whose significance can hardly be exaggerated.

When Francis visited Chile in January, he was widely expected to calm the ongoing furor over Juan Barros Madrid. Instead, he intensified it.

Barros was a follower of Francisco Karadima, a charismatic priest whom the Vatican defrocked in 2011 for abusing teenagers during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite accusations by several of Karadima’s victims that Barros had been present for some of the abuse and failed to report it—and over the objections of Chile's bishops—Francis went ahead and appointed him bishop of the southern Chilean city of Osorno in 2015. As the case festered, Barros twice offered, and Francis twice refused to accept, his resignation.

In January, he rubbed salt into the wound by celebrating Mass with Barros and calling the charges against him “calumny.” Although he retracted the comment after it provoked outrage, he insisted that he believed in Barros’ innocence. His apparent dismissal of credible evidence stunned even his staunchest supporters.

Fortunately, Francis was sufficiently concerned about the situation that he appointed Malta Archbishop Charles Scicluna to look into it. Scicluna, whose investigations have brought down sexual predators Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland and Marcial Maciel Degollado of the Legionaries of Christ, has now delivered an apparently devastating report on the Barros affair.

In responding to it, Francis confesses that reading the testimony of the victims "causes me pain and shame." The letter is by way of an invitation to the bishops of Chile to come to Rome to help him devise measures "to re-establish ecclesial communion in Chile, with the goal of repairing as much as possible the scandal and re-establishing justice."

"As for my own responsibility," he writes, 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."

Anyone who has followed the stuttering progress of the Vatican in dealing with the world-wide sex abuse crisis will not doubt the truth of that last phrase. In resigning from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors a year ago, Marie Collins wrote, "The most significant problem has been reluctance of some members of the Vatican Curia to implement the recommendations of the Commission despite their approval by the pope."

I would not want to be in the shoes of the curial officials who provided that false and unbalanced information.

Over the years, there have been not a few cases of Catholic prelates disciplined for sexual misbehavior. What makes the Barros case so important is that if, as can be expected, the pope removes him from office for cause, it will be the first time a Catholic prelate has been explicitly cashiered because he covered up abuse by others.

The letter to the Chilean bishops, a public confession of error that so far as I know is without precedent in the entire history of the papacy, indicates that Francis has finally recognized the nature and gravity of the abuse crisis, and his personal responsibility for resolving it. Three decades after the crisis began, he is now in a position to bring it to an end.


  1. He made an interesting choice, in apologizing “to the bishops of Chile” rather than the abuse victims he’d slandered, accusing them of defamation and lying about what they had reported. 

  2. “that I have made serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of the situation, especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information.”

    Anyone who has followed the stuttering progress of the Vatican in dealing with the world-wide sex abuse crisis will not doubt the truth of that last phrase.”

    Actually, this is PRECISELY what I doubt. “Three decades after the crisis began…” WTF? The sex abuse scandal, and the cover-ups that have enabled it, are not a new thing, a recent thing, or a modern times thing. It goes back at least 1000 years. Had I been Frank, I would have taken that into consideration long before I took up the cause of the bishops who, shall we say, have been real ducks about it.

    Pope Francis issued a letter of apology to the bishops of Chile for his handling of the their country’s sex abuse crisis.” Those poor, poor bishops, have to endure the horrible experience of either getting off on sexually abusing young people or escaping notice by covering it up. They have suffered so very, very much!

  3. I suppose with all the secrecy concerning judgments made by the Vatican, we may never know who lied or covered up for Barros, if someone did. My impression was that the Chilean bishops did not want Barros appointed – but then I assumed that was something all the bishops in Chile agree about. What I think now is that some did, some didn’t, and those who defended Barros had the “ins” with Francis.

    I have no idea what this all means. Does Francis now believe that Barros knew of the abuse and covered it up? Did Barros not understand what he was seeing was sexual abuse – think it was consensual “playing around?”

    Here is the biggie – does Francis now think Barros covered up abuse? will he be remove him? Was the “lack of truthful and balanced information” deliberate on the part of some specific other people and will they be held accountable – removed from office – for deceiving Francis?

    But all of this about who is or is not guilty of a cover-up, isn’t nearly as important as the Pope admitting “I have made serious mistakes…” Finally, we can begin to admit the fallibility of popes and stop taking everything they say and do as if it were from the mouth of God. I would very much like to see prior popes actions reviewed and open to how good their judgments were in how they handled all kinds of things. And, if a pope can make a mistake, so can a cardinal, bishop, priest, the head of a dicastery in Rome. Maybe we can begin to demystify clericalism and get back to recognizing that for all their “ontological difference” they are first human and fallible.

  4. The most significant thing about this that shows it’s credible is the reaction of the survivors. Since 2015 the survivors and victims have heavily criticized Francis and rightly so for his handling of the Bishop Barros situation. And they even critiqued his initial apologies in Chile on January 16 and January 24 after his reckless and offensive comments.

    Now however with this official apology the victims(Juan Carlos Cruz and others) have responded positively to this apology and say they feel it was genuine and that they were vindicated. The Pope has also invited the victims personally to the Vatican along with the emergency session he’s holding. So he made a blunder, corrected his mistake and has learned which is good progress here.

    Speaking as a Canadian, I hope he corrects a similar blunder he has just made here with regards to the residential schools because he recently declined to come to Canada and fulfill the conditions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission here over apologizing to residential school survivors. I trust that given the fact that he is willing to admit he is wrong on issues and makes mistakes, that he recognizes a similar blunder.

  5. I don’t believe any rational person denied that a Pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, or the head of a dicastery could not error.

  6. There are over 5,000 bishops.

    What is lacking is evidence of a concerted “cover-up”.

  7. We will have turned a corner when the next (unfortunately) abuse revelation comes out and how the pope and the RCC deals with it. Any positive change will be determined by how they respond to the next group of survivors who come forward.

  8. maybe now pope francis will apologize to the millions of native americans and their allies who asked him to not make a saint out of the franciscan terrorist priest Junipera Serra.. who was the force behind the ultimate genocide of native california indians… Francis blatantly ignored the historical accounts of the natives and historians in favor of his conclusion that conquering of the people and their lands was far more important than the rapes/torture/terror/ slaughter and robbery it took to do it. and on top of it he had just apologized for the crimes against indigenous a few days before he sainted the sadistic Serra.. Francis is a jesuit. two faced puppet.. the only thing i think about his apology for his mistake about Chilean Bishops is that it is a well thought out JESUIT PR stunt.. created to do exactly what this article claims and what the so called victims now believe.. and most likely Francis Visit and his remarks in Chile were part of the PR stunt.

  9. What Serra did was for their benefit. Imagine them hundreds of thousands of Indians living in those times who lived died and never knew there was a hell.

  10. But Roman Catholic doctrine states that “in matters of faith” the Pope cannot error. Clearly these abuses do not fall under that rubric, and Pope Francis’s reconsideration is a worthwhile thing. Still, as one who believes in the catholicity of all genuine followers of Christ, I reject the doctrine of infallibility as applied to any human being, Pope or not.

  11. Infallibility does not pertain to the Pope. It pertains to his teaching office.

    It is not a personal charism but a charism of the church.

  12. Homo sapien (modern man) has existed for some 100,000 to 200,000 yrs.
    Let’s take the lower figure.
    Why did God wait 98,000 yrs to bring Man a savior ?
    Man was doing fine.
    No hell to fear !
    Ah yes !
    We can’t possibly understand the mind of God….

  13. ” I would not want to be in the shoes of the curial officials who provided that false and unbalanced information. ”

    What galaxy are you from ?

    Marcinkas, of Banco Ambrosiano fame, was promoted, even after – claiming innocence – the Vatican paid out $260 million to the screwed ” investors ” as a ” good faith gesture “.

    The criminal JP2 became a saint !

  14. 1. Sex abuse scandal
    2. Pope meets with victims
    3. Pope does nothing to prevent further abuse
    4. Repeat

  15. Well, if you are going to go around producing actual facts, then “we can’t understand the mind of god” is the perfect response from the people who claim to understand the relationship of god with everyone on the planet.

  16. Money changers in the temple. Who woulda thunk?

  17. Apparently you know about as much about Fr. Serra and the Indians as you know about religion.

  18. The strongest supporters of canonizing Junipera Serra were native Americans.

    Of course, they reaped the benefits of education, while loonies want another “cause” to fuel their zany version of reality.

  19. I’m with Martin Luther who said it is not Biblical for the clergy not to marry and be homos.

  20. You can tell we’re christians by our love.

    Tra la la la la la.

  21. Not to quibble, and I mean that genuinely, your statement seems a matter of semantics. To the degree that infallibility pertains to his teaching office, and that is a charism of the Church rather than a personal charism, does that in any way change the fact that the teaching proceeds from, or through him? Scripturally speaking, I find no evidence that declares infallibility, however manifested, to be outside the Lord Himself. None of His servants are able attain to His Office, His methodology, or His metaphysics. I make this argument with all due respect to you and the papacy.

  22. No, it is not a matter of semantics.

    It is the office, not the person.

    The bases for that belief is really quite outside the scope of this article.

  23. And Francis’ biggest error? Not leaving his religion which is based on an illiterate rabbi who lived in the first century CE and who still lies a-mouldering in the dirt around Jerusalem.

  24. But is it outside the scope of the argument? Conceptually it is difficult for me to separate the man from the office when all such action from that office proceeds from the essence of the man who holds the office. They appear to me to be inextricably linked. However, I’m prepared to concede that I just don’t get it, as you have delineated it, and I won’t challenge your delineation even though it remains inexplicable to me.

  25. It is the office, not the man.

    It is not a personal charism.

    The office proceeds from the essence of the Church,.

  26. Unfortunately, as I stated, that may be the official doctrine, but I cannot fathom its metaphysics…and it is patently in my view a metaphysical question. Let us depart from the question on congenial terms, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” Romans 12:18.

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