SANTIAGO, Chile — As Pope Francis began his visit to Chile, a Vatican spokesman has voiced “maximum respect” for the rights of protesters continuing their three-year opposition to a bishop’s appointment, but the Pope will not meet with them.
The subject of the protests, Bishop Juan Barros Madrid of Osorno, has repeated explanations that he did not know his longtime friend Father Fernando Karadima was a sexual abuser, despite the claims of protesters alleging that Bishop Barros helped cover up Father Karadima’s abuse.
“I never knew anything about, nor ever imagined, the serious abuses which that priest committed against the victims,” Bishop Barros told The Associated Press. “I have never approved of nor participated in such serious dishonest acts, and I have never been convicted by any tribunal of such things.”
In January 2015, the Pope named Bishop Barros to head the Diocese of Osorno in southern Chile. The appointment drew objections and a call 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.
Days later, Archbishop Fernando Chomali Garib of Concepcion said that Pope Francis had told him that there was “no objective reason at all” that the bishop should not be installed. The Pope had been kept up to date on the situation.
On March 31, 2015, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops also released a statement, saying that the office had “carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.”
The then-apostolic nuncio to Chile, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, said that all information about Bishop Barros was passed on to Pope Francis. Most of the people in the church were not protesters, but “people who love their bishop,” the nuncio said.
Decades previously, Bishop Barros had been a close friend to Father Karadima, an influential Santiago-area priest who fostered the vocations of about 40 priests, including Bishop Barros.
When reports of sexual abuse and other scandal surrounding Father Karadima surfaced, Bishop Barros was among the prelates who did not believe the accusations. A civil lawsuit against the priest was dismissed on the grounds that his alleged behavior was beyond the statute of limitations.
In February 2011, however, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith finished its investigation with the conclusion that the priest was guilty. At the age of 84, Father Karadima was sent to a life of solitude and prayer.
Bishop Barros said he had already been distancing himself from the priest before allegations surfaced because he had become “ill-tempered.”
“The pain of the victims hurts me enormously. I pray for those that carry this pain with them today,” he said in a 2015 letter to the faithful of the Diocese of Osorno ahead of his installation.
On May 6, 2015, five months after Bishop Barros was appointed to lead the Diocese of Osorno, Deacon Jaime Coiro, general secretary of the Chilean Episcopal Conference, told Pope Francis that the Church in Osorno “is praying and suffering for you.”
“Osorno suffers, yes,” Pope Francis said, “for silliness.”
“The only accusation against that bishop was discredited by the judicial court,” the Pope told Coiro, according to a video of the conversation released by Chile’s Ahora Noticias.
“Think with your head, and do not be carried away by the noses of the leftists, who are the ones who put this thing together,” the Pope added.
Three of Father Karadima’s victims have accused Bishop Barros of covering up for the priest, an allegation not supported by the Vatican investigation. The most well-known of these accusers, former seminarian Juan Carlos Cruz, lives in the United States and has served as a leading communications executive for the DuPont Co.
Cruz charged that Father Karadima sexually abused him in the 1980s and claimed that Bishop Barros and other bishops trained by Karadima were aware of the abuse and even witnessed it, The Associated Press says.
On Jan. 11, The Associated Press said a confidential letter from the Pope to the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, dated Jan. 31, 2015, acknowledged some Chilean bishops’ concerns about the appointment. The Pope reportedly said that the apostolic nuncio in 2014 had asked Bishop Barros to resign as bishop to Chile’s armed forces and to take a sabbatical before assuming any other responsibility as a bishop.
The Pope’s letter said Bishop Barros was informed that a similar approach was planned for two other bishops trained by Father Karadima, but the bishop was not to share this information. Bishop Barros allegedly created “a serious problem” when he named these two bishops in his letter stepping down as military bishop and “blocked any eventual path” to remove these bishops from controversy.
Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, declined to comment to the AP regarding the Pope’s 2015 letter. For his part, Bishop Barros said he knew nothing of the letter.
Pope Francis is visiting Chile and Peru during a trip spanning Jan. 15-21. The papal visit to Chile has drawn some violent opposition.
At least six Catholic churches in the country were attacked in apparent protest of the visit.
Three Catholic churches in the capital of Santiago were attacked or vandalized by unknown assailants Jan. 12. A firebomb at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Santiago’s Estación Central district included a death threat against the Pope.
“Pope Francis, the next bombs will be in your cassock,” said a pamphlet left behind.
Two other chapels in the city also suffered damage, including broken windows and doors.
Other pamphlets left behind appeared to object to the Church, saying: “We will never submit to the dominion they want to exercise over our bodies, our ideas and actions, because we were born free to decide the path we want to take.” The messages appeared to support “autonomy and resistance” for the Mapuche, the largest indigenous group in the country. Many Mapuche live in the Aurancia region, where Pope Francis will visit.
Since Chile’s 19th-century military conquest that incorporated the region, many Mapuche communities have sought the return of ancestral lands, respect for their cultural identity and sometimes autonomy.
A fourth church — Christ the Poor Man Shrine — was targeted by a bomb threat and was subsequently investigated by a bomb squad. Some evangelical Protestant churches were also targeted.
The morning after the attacks, a group of protesters stormed Chile’s apostolic nunciature before police arrived and evicted them.
Roxana Miranda, head of an activist group that protest high mortgage rates, claimed responsibility for the protest and said it was motivated by objections to the cost of the Pope’s visit to the country.