As an abuse scandal spreads around a bishop in Chile that he appointed, new questions about Pope Francis’ role

In many ways, it’s surprising that Pope Francis’ spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip style of public speech hasn’t gotten him into serious trouble long before now.

There have been minifracases along the way. For instance, what exactly did he mean that Catholics “don’t have to breed like rabbits,” as he put it in a memorable press conference in January 2015 on the way back from the Philippines?

Until now, it was never enough to put a dent in the media’s love affair with Pope Francis. If anything, the pontiff’s maverick style and penchant for plain speech has been part of that romance, contrasting favorably with the bland corporate boilerplate one often gets from officialdom.

Now, however, the romance appears to be in crisis amid intense criticism currently swirling around the pope’s statement — on his return flight from a trip to Chile and Peru in late January — that sexual victims in Chile asserting that Bishop Juan Barros of the Diocese of Osorno knew about their abuse and covered it up had not “come forward.”

His statement contrasted with aggressive reporting by the Associated Press that a letter from victims outlining those charges had been presented to the pontiff through Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston in 2015.

As a textual matter, the pope didn’t really say “come forward” in the usual English sense of “go public.” What he said, literally, in the original Italian, was, “Non sono venuti, non hanno dato le evidenze per il giudizio,” meaning, “They did not come, they did not give evidence for the judgment.”

It seems clear in context he meant they “did not come” to him, meaning placing evidence directly in his hands.

By way of contrast, the fact that the pope actually was presented with details of the charges against Bishop Barros three years ago has been known for a long time.

Several media outlets, including Crux magazine, reported in the spring of 2015 that victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest, Father Fernando Karadima, had traveled to Rome to discuss Bishop Barros’ appointment with members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the group created by Pope Francis to advise him on anti-abuse efforts.

Later, a member of the commission at the time, Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, gave a letter from the victims to Cardinal O’Malley, which he vowed to relay to the pope.

So, it’s long been on record that Francis had access to the victims’ accounts, making the current frenzy seem a bit like the rest of the world catching up.

For the record, the accusation is that Bishop Barros knew of the abuse but covered it up at a time when he was still a priest, so, strictly speaking, this isn’t a case of “episcopal accountability.”

It’s also worth noting that the fact someone placed a letter in the pope’s hands, which happens about a 100 times a day, is no guarantee he read it, although it’s difficult to imagine he hasn’t since.

The face-value interpretation of what Pope Francis has been saying on the Bishop Barros case, therefore, would seem to be that he’s aware of the charges but does not believe they rise to the level of evidence warranting punishment.

In the current focus on “What did the pope know, and when did he know it?” a key point about the way this is unfolding risks being lost. To wit, that Pope Francis has staked the Bishop Barros debate on the grounds of evidence rather than authority.

Here’s another way he might have answered the Bishop Barros question on that in-flight news conference: “In the Catholic Church, it’s the pope who decides who’s fit to be a bishop. I made this decision, and I’m standing by it.”

Naturally, such a response would have been a PR disaster, but from an ecclesiological and canon law point of view, it also would have been perfectly accurate.

Framing it that way, of course, would have implied there’s really no evidence that could cause Pope Francis to change his mind, and thus no place left for the discussion to go.

Instead, however, Pope Francis has made the litmus test the presence or absence of evidence that Bishop Barros actually witnessed, or at least knew about, the abuse being committed by Father Karadima, and failed to act on that knowledge.

The implication is that if such evidence is verified and confirmed, then action will follow.

In turn, that makes the current mission of Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta critically important. Archbishop Scicluna has been tapped by the pope to investigate the Bishop Barros case, and anyone who knows Archbishop Scicluna’s reputation from the time he was the Vatican’s top sex abuse prosecutor under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — whose chief claim to fame was bringing down the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, once seen as untouchable — is aware of two things:

First, if there is evidence to be found against Bishop Barros, Archbishop Scicluna will find it.

Second, if the response to that evidence, assuming it’s confirmed, is not swift and sure, Archbishop Scicluna will say so.

Whether he realizes it or not, therefore, Pope Francis has effectively, and voluntarily, tied his own hands, setting up the ultimate decision about Bishop Barros as one that will be resolved not according to the pope’s own will, but what the evidence reveals.

That may be cold comfort to the Chilean victims, who doubtless feel they presented enough evidence to warrant action three years ago.

Nonetheless, however high a standard for what counts as “evidence” Pope Francis may be implying here, in principle what he’s done is important — the takeaway is that not even an invocation of papal authority would be enough to save a bishop if objective evidence confirms that bishop’s participation in a sex abuse cover-up.

To put the point differently, Bishop Barros’ fate really isn’t in Pope Francis’ hands now, but those of Archbishop Scicluna — and if Bishop Barros actually is guilty of a cover-up, then he’s unlikely to find much comfort in that thought.

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