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Pope Francis Needs To Come Clean On Chilean Sex Abuse

Pope Francis meets with bishops at the archbishop's residence in Lima, Peru, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. Francis wrapped up his trip to Peru by meeting with bishops and nuns, but the controversy over his accusations that Chilean sex abuse victims slandered a bishop continued to haunt him. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Pope Francis meets with bishops at the archbishop's residence in Lima, Peru, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. Francis wrapped up his trip to Peru by meeting with bishops and nuns, but the controversy over his accusations that Chilean sex abuse victims slandered a bishop continued to haunt him. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

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As a Catholic, I've disagreed with critics of Pope Francis from both ends of the spectrum.

Right-wing whining (he's for the poor and the environment? Marxism!) is just daft; leftist grousing (he’s all style and no substance, as when declining to condemn gays while upholding church teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts) ignores the effect of personal example on a conservative culture. Airing out a musty attic makes breathing easier, even if the attic still needs some cleaning.

But now comes news that Francis personally received a letter two years ago from a man who claimed Chilean Bishop Juan Barros stood by and watched a priest abuse the letter writer. Yet just last month, the pope dissed accusations against Barros as “calumny” (derived from the Latin that the church is fond of, that’s “lies” in the King’s English).

There’s no defending the pope here. Catholics, especially victims of abuse in Chile and everywhere, need an explanation and probably an apology from the pontiff. Sooner, not later.

If that sounds impertinent, I cite both Francis’s admirable humility — the pope is not God — and the fact that the sin of sexual abuse, and the church’s cover-up thereof, have always been sui generis. No crisis since the Reformation so rocked Catholicism; selling indulgences seems penny-ante by comparison.

It has become cliché to say the scandal cost the church its moral authority. Those offended by Vatican-hectoring for answers in the Barros case perhaps don’t grasp the reality of the leaders’ loss of standing. The horrific harm of sex abuse, its scale over decades and across nations, and the sheer pathology of the bishops who covered it up cost the church any claim to deference.

No less staunch and theologically conservative a son of the church than Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley chided the pope for his tone-deaf “calumny” comments. With his history as a closer of abuse settlements in various dioceses, notably Boston, and as a key Francis adviser who headed the lapsed Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, O’Malley speaks with authority on this topic.

So it was not surprising that other members of the commission approached him two years ago to deliver that letter to the pope from Juan Carlos Cruz. Cruz wrote of being abused by the priest Fernando Karadima and alleged that Barros, whom Francis had just appointed bishop, witnessed the abuse. (The church has declared Karadima guilty of abusing minors over 15 years in the 1980s and '90s.)

O’Malley has said he gave Francis the letter in 2015. Then last month, the pope defended Barros and put down his accusers. “The disclosure of the letter has raised difficult questions for the pope,” The New York Times wrote, with majestic understatement. “Did he read the letter and decide not to tell reporters about it? Did he choose to believe Bishop Barros over Mr. Cruz? Or did he never read the letter, or perhaps read it but forgot about it?”

If Francis read the letter and kept mum about it while publicly slandering abuse victims, that was dishonest. If he believed Barros over Cruz, well, the Vatican has tacitly admitted that that was a rush to premature judgment: It is dispatching its premier abuse investigator to Chile to interview Cruz and other victims.

If, on the other hand, the pope never read the letter or forgot about it, he owes it to himself and to his flock to accept the reformers’ call for a new Vatican department to track and investigate abuse and other wrongdoing.

Whatever the explanation, and even assuming, somehow, that Bishop Barros is found not guilty of the charges, the pope slurred accusers last month without having all the facts or while ignoring allegations he had in hand.

The pope, former Pontifical Commission member Marie Collins told WBUR’s Radio Boston, “he said all the right things and expressed all the right views on abuse and the harm and the hurt. But in this case at least, it would seem his actions have not matched the words. And that is sad.”

Marie Collins hands the letter written by Juan Carlos Cruz to Cardinal Sean O'Malley in April 2015. (Courtesy of Catherine Bonnet)
Marie Collins hands the letter written by Juan Carlos Cruz to Cardinal Sean O'Malley in April 2015. (Courtesy of Catherine Bonnet)

“The Catholic Church Doesn’t Do Paradigm Shifts,” read the headline over a commentary by traditionalist Catholic George Weigel. Weigel as referring to what he called the unchanging truth of Catholic doctrine. I don’t know whether denying the benefit of the doubt to church leaders, up to and including the one who sits in the chair of Peter, counts as a paradigm shift.

But it’s a welcome default in Catholicism.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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