How did a papal visit aimed at healing a suffering Church in Chile end up inflicting a serious wound on Pope Francis?

The papal visit to Chile was expected to be difficult, due to the effects of the sex-abuse crisis there. Yet that challenge has been dealt with before in other countries.

What happened in contrast in Chile was a genuine surprise. The Pope’s critics were vocal, as was expected. It was his abandonment by his allies that was the surprise, with enduring consequences.

The sex-abuse crisis in Chile is centered on the figure of Father Fernando Karadima, a well-known Chilean priest whose parish produced dozens of priests and five bishops. In 2010, he was accused of years of sexual abuse of minors. A Vatican investigation found him guilty and, due to his advanced age, sentenced him to a life of penance and prayer. The Chilean courts did not prosecute due to the statute of limitations, but declared their opinion of his guilt.

Three bishops who were from Father Karadima’s circle have been accused of covering up for their mentor. The Vatican maintains that, after investigation, no evidence has been found against them. Bishop Juan Barros, one of the three, was promoted from being the military bishop to the Diocese of Osorno in 2015. Protests against this were voluble, and his installation Mass had to be cut short due to violent demonstrators in the cathedral. Most of his priests boycotted his arrival, and the rest of the members of the Chilean episcopate kept their distance.

Pope Francis, though, was determined to make a stand for Bishop Barros’ innocence. In 2015, in St. Peter’s Square, he accused the critics of the bishop of being politically manipulated by “leftists.” That episode — the haranguing Pope captured on video — is played constantly in Chile as an example of the Holy Father’s protection of Bishop Barros and his disdain for the concerns of victims.

The papal visit for Chile was thus planned to turn the page on what is called the “Barros War.” The aftereffects of the Father Karadima scandal have seen a precipitous drop in Catholic identification and practice, and Chile is now Latin America’s most secular country.

Pope Francis opened his visit with a thoroughgoing apology for sexual abuse by priests and the failure of bishops. He would then, on the same day, speak with priests about their own experience of shame and humiliation, inviting them to embrace it as a means of solidarity with a suffering Chilean Church.

The Pope’s biographer, Austen Ivereigh, was on hand in Chile to argue that the papal trip would mark the “rehabilitation” of Bishop Barros. But even Ivereigh conceded that Pope Francis had risked an enormous amount of his credibility in backing the besieged bishop.

“Francis’ dogged determination to support Barros against this tide from both Church and society must be counted as one of the boldest — or, perhaps, most foolhardy — decisions of his pontificate,” wrote Ivereigh. “Among some of Francis’ strongest critics is a group of laypeople and priests in Osorno, who describe the imposition of Barros as an authoritarian act that rides roughshod over the feelings of the local Church. The Pope’s frustration with those voices was laid bare in an infamous outburst in May 2015 in St. Peter’s Square.”

However, any possible rehabilitation was torpedoed on the eve of the visit, when a papal letter to the Chilean bishops was leaked to The Associated Press.

In the letter, written in January 2015, Francis is replying to the executive of the Chilean bishops’ conference, which had sent him an extraordinary message in December 2014 requesting that he reverse the impending appointment of Bishop Barros to Osorno. The papal reply is even more extraordinary, revealing that the papal nuncio in Chile had arranged for Bishop Barros and the two other bishops to resign their offices and take a one-year sabbatical in order to calm matters. Bishop Barros agreed, the others apparently did not, and so the resignation plan was scuttled. Instead, the Holy Father decided to move forward with the promotion of Bishop Barros.

The leaked letter made Pope Francis look erratic: The papal nuncio had arranged to have Bishop Barros resign; instead, the Pope confirmed his appointment and insisted upon it even in the face of the Chilean bishops’ vehement protest.

Why was the embarrassing letter leaked just days before Pope Francis arrived in Chile? Who leaked it?

The logical source would be one of those who received it. Even if one the Chilean bishops did not leak the letter, the fact that none of them challenged its authenticity or defended Pope Francis made the message clear. As Pope Francis was preparing to arrive in Chile, he, and he alone, would have to answer for the Bishop Barros affair. Chile’s bishops opposed Pope Francis’ decision in 2015 in private and would not support him in 2018 in public.

That bit of awkwardness should have reminded Pope Francis that the Barros War was radioactive and that he should not touch what the Chilean bishops were dumping in his lap. Yet, in the most disastrous press interview of his pontificate, Pope Francis told journalists in Chile that those who said Bishop Barros was guilty of a cover-up were guilty of “calumny.”

After that, not only did the Pope have no allies in the Chilean episcopate, but Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, a member of the papal-picked “Council of Cardinals” and head of the Papal Commission on the Sexual Abuse of Minors, took the astonishing step of publicly rebuking the Holy Father, saying that his words caused “great pain” for sexual-abuse victims. The rebuke by Cardinal O’Malley was unprecedented, all the more shocking given that he is considered a close papal ally.

Chastened, and knowing that in a public quarrel with Cardinal O’Malley his own credibility would be shredded, Pope Francis accepted the rebuke during the news conference on the plane home, saying that the cardinal’s statement was just.

The upshot, though, is unsettling. On the major issue of sexual abuse, Pope Francis is now isolated, with his critics renewed in their anger, bishops taking their distance, and his allies expressing their dismay.

Luis Badilla, of the Italian website Il Sismografo, a news portal generally thought of as supportive of Pope Francis, wrote a devastating critique, saying the only solution would be for Bishop Barros to resign immediately.

Meanwhile, Robert Mickens, a longtime liberal Catholic writer who generally writes in adulatory fashion about Pope Francis, exploded in frustration, saying that the most “plausible” explanation is that Pope Francis won’t act against Bishop Barros because he himself covered up sexual abuse when he was a bishop in Argentina. There is no evidence of that, but that Mickens would make the claim is an indication of the isolation of Pope Francis.

On his return flight to Rome, Pope Francis described his visit to Chile as a “fairy tale.” It is doubtful that all are going to live happily ever after.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.