VATICAN CITY — Several members of Pope Francis' sex abuse advisory board are expressing concern and incredulity over his decision to appoint a Chilean bishop to a diocese despite allegations from victims that he covered up for Chile's most notorious pedophile.
In interviews and emails with The Associated Press, the experts have questioned Francis' pledge to hold bishops accountable, listen to victims and keep children safe, given the record of Bishop Juan Barros in the case of the Rev. Fernando Karadima.
Barros was installed last week as bishop of Osorno in southern Chile amid nationwide political opposition, violent protests in the cathedral and a boycott by most of the diocese's priests and deacons. It was an almost unheard-of vote of no-confidence for a bishop in an overwhelmingly Catholic country in a part of the world that the Argentine pope knows well.
While the Holy See is loath to be bullied by public opinion, the concern about the appointment expressed by the commission members is hard to ignore given that they are not victim advocacy groups. Rather, they are professionals appointed by Francis himself to advise the Vatican on best practices to protect children and educate the church on how to respond to and prevent sexual abuse by priests.
The five commission members spoke to the AP in their personal and professional capacity and stressed that they knew about the case only from news reports and were not speaking on behalf of the 17-member commission, which Francis formed in late 2013 and named Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley to head.
"I am very worried," said commission member Dr. Catherine Bonnet, a French child psychiatrist and author on child sex abuse. "Although the commission members cannot intervene with individual cases, I would like to meet with Cardinal O'Malley and other members of the commission to discuss a way to pass over our concerns to Pope Francis."
Another commission member, Marie Collins, herself a survivor of abuse, said she couldn't understand how Francis could have appointed Barros given the concerns about his behavior.
"It goes completely against what he (Francis) has said in the past about those who protect abusers," Collins told AP. "The voice of the survivors is being ignored, the concerns of the people and many clergy in Chile are being ignored and the safety of children in this diocese is being left in the hands of a bishop about whom there are grave concerns for his commitment to child protection."
Barros, the former chaplain of Chile's armed forces, has faced unprecedented opposition ever since he was named in January to lead the Osorno diocese. The demonstrators say he is unfit to lead and point to his close association with Karadima, a charismatic and popular priest who was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011 for sexually abusing minors.
Three of Karadima's victims told the AP this month that Barros witnessed the abuse decades ago at the Sacred Heart of Jesus church in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and that he did nothing. They accused Barros of destroying a letter detailing allegations against Karadima that was sent to the then-bishop in 1982.
Barros, 58, was not Karadima's superior but was rather a protege of the now 84-year-old prelate, who has been confined to a cloister to live a life of "penance and prayer" for his crimes.
Barros had long refused to comment publicly on the allegations, but on the eve of his installation insisted he didn't know about any abuse until he read about the allegations in 2010 news reports.
The outrage over Barros appointment has been noteworthy in a country that is slowly coming to grips with the church sex abuse crisis that has afflicted the United States, Europe and Australia in particular: More than 1,300 church members in Osorno, along with some 30 priests from the diocese and 51 of Chile's 120 members of Parliament, sent letters to Francis in February urging him to rescind the appointment.
To no avail. On the eve of the March 21 installation, the Vatican embassy expressed its full "confidence and support" in Barros and urged the church in Chile to show a spirit of "faith as well as communion" by accepting him in Osorno.
His installation, however, was a scene of utter chaos, with protesters entering the cathedral, pushing and shoving and nearly coming to blows as Barros tried to walk down the aisle. The appointment has badly divided Chile's bishops' conference, and it remains to be seen if Barros can effectively govern.
Although Francis went ahead with the installation, he has shown himself willing to remove bishops who have divided their local church or caused scandal. Just last week, he accepted the resignation of Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien for sexual misbehavior — a decision that hasn't gone unnoticed by commentators outraged that O'Brien was effectively fired the day before Barros was installed.
The issue is particularly delicate for Francis, who would have been familiar with the Karadima scandal when it broke in 2010, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. The scandal implicated his friend, the then-Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, who admitted that he shelved an investigation into Karadima in 2005 but reopened it in 2010 as the global abuse crisis was erupting.
Any wavering by Francis on the Barros appointment could open a Pandora's box of renewed allegations against Errazuriz, now one of Francis' top advisers, and others in the Chilean church hierarchy who dismissed allegations from victims and instead stood by Karadima.
Commission member Baroness Sheila Hollins, a psychiatrist and life peer in Britain's House of Lords, said accountability must be enforced when it comes to protecting children.
"The hierarchical rank of the perpetrator must be of no consequence in evaluating the facts," she told the AP.
Commission member Dr. Krysten Winter-Green of New Zealand, an expert in social work and pastoral psychology, echoed that view and said she understood that Francis' "zero tolerance" pledge meant he too, must believe the same.
"It is my presumption therefore that in the ultimate analysis justice will prevail and that Bishop Barros and all hierarchy will be held to account as the Holy Father sees fit," she said in an email.
Francis' record on sex abuse has been somewhat mixed.
Victims groups initially questioned whether he "got it" about the scale of the problem since he had never dealt with it directly when he was archbishop. He later received praise for having created the advisory commission and having vowed, during a sermon with sex abuse survivors in the pews, that bishops must protect children and be held accountable.
"If Pope Francis is presented with such powerful facts (of compromised bishops) then I can't see why the pope cannot remove them immediately," said commission member Peter Saunders, a survivor of abuse. "He has that authority."
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