VATICAN CITY — After recently affirming his support for a Chilean bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse, Pope Francis has named a delegate to examine information that, the Vatican said, has since been brought forward.
According to a Jan. 30 Vatican statement, “following some information recently received regarding the case of Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid,” the Pope has asked Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to travel to Santiago, Chile, “to listen to those who have expressed the desire to submit items in their possession.”
In addition to overseeing the Diocese of Malta, Archbishop Scicluna in 2015 was named by the Pope to oversee the doctrinal team charged with handling appeals filed by clergy accused of abuse in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Scicluna served as the congregation’s promoter of justice for 17 years, beginning in 1995. He is widely regarded for his expertise in the canonical norms governing allegations of sexual abuse.
The Pope’s decision to send Archbishop Scicluna to Santiago comes after fresh controversy on the appointment arose during Pope Francis’ Jan. 15-18 visit to Chile.
Francis named Bishop Barros as head of the Osorno Diocese in Chile in 2015. The move continues to draw harsh criticism from activists and abuse victims who accuse the bishop of covering up the crimes of his longtime friend, Father Fernando Karadima.
Father Karadima, who once led a lay movement from his parish in El Bosque, was convicted of sexually abusing minors in a 2011 Vatican trial, and at the age of 84, he was sentenced to a life of prayer and solitude.
Bishop Barros has repeatedly insisted that he knew nothing of the abuse, and Pope Francis has backed him, naming him head of the Diocese of Osorno in southern Chile in 2015.
The decision set off a wave of objections and calls for his resignation from several priests. Dozens of protesters, including non-Catholics, attempted to disrupt his March 21, 2015, installation Mass at the Osorno cathedral. However, Francis has insisted on keeping Bishop Barros in his post.
On his last day in Chile, before heading to Peru, the Pope responded to a Chilean journalist who asked about the Barros issue, saying that “the day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”
The comment was met with uproar from Bishop Barros’ critics, several of whom are victims of Father Karadima’s abuse. It also prompted Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, one of the Pope’s nine cardinal advisers and head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to release a statement saying the words were painful to victims.
When asked about it by reporters on his Jan. 21 flight back to Rome, Pope Francis apologized, saying that “the word ‘proof’ was not the best in order to draw near to a suffering heart.”
He asked for forgiveness from victims he may have wounded, saying any unintentional harm he may have caused “horrified” him, especially after having met with victims in Chile and in other trips, such as his visit to Philadelphia in 2015.
“I know how much they suffer, to feel that the Pope says in their face ‘bring me a letter, proof’ — it’s a slap,” he said.
Francis also said he is aware that victims may not have brought evidence forward either because it is not available or because they are perhaps frightened or ashamed.
He insisted that Bishop Barros’ case “was studied, it was re-studied, and there is no evidence. ... That is what I wanted to say. I have no evidence to condemn him. And if I condemn him without evidence or without moral certainty, I would commit the crime of a bad judge.”
“If a person comes and gives me evidence,” he said, “I am the first to listen to him. We should be just.”