by Tess Daniels
Aboard the papal flight to Lima, Peru, Pope Francis apologized for comments made in Iquique, Chile concerning victims of clergy sex abuse. He says that he now realizes that he unknowingly wounded the victims.
Pope Francis was referring to a response he gave in Iquique, Chile, on Jan. 18 when reporters asked him to explain his support for Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno. Barros has been accused of covering up abuse perpetrated by his former mentor, Father Fernando Karadima. Father Karadima was found guilty of sexually abusing boys by a Vatican court and sentenced to a lifetime of prayer and penance.
Pope Francis answered reporters in Iqiuque, “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It is calumny. Is that clear?” His response provoked outrage among victims of clergy abuse, especially Father Karadima’s victims, who commented that the Pope’s words made his promises of protection seem hollow.
When asked about the incident, Francis said he meant to use the Spanish word for “evidence,” not “proof,” and explained that he only wanted to note that he had not seen any evidence of Bishop Barros’s culpability. Francis said he realized later that his words erroneously implied that the victims’ accusations are credible only with concrete proof.
“To feel that the pope says to their face, ‘Bring me a letter with proof,’ is a slap in the face,” he acknowledged. The Pontiff asked for forgiveness from victims he may have wounded, stating that causing them harm “horrified” him, especially after he met some of the victims in Chile.
Nonetheless, the Pope told reporters on the papal flight that he still stood firmly behind Bishop Barros because he is “personally convinced” of the bishop’s innocence after the case was investigated twice with no evidence emerging. Francis recognized that “covering up abuse is an abuse in itself,” but if he punished Bishop Barros without moral certainty, he would be “committing the crime of a bad judge.”
Pope Francis also told reporters that he appreciated the Jan. 20 statement made by Séan Patrick Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The Cardinal wrote, “Words that convey the message, ‘If you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed,’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.” The Cardinal’s comments have led some to question whether a new door has opened for criticism of the Pope from usually supportive U.S. bishops.
Cardinal O’Malley, however, also acknowledged Francis’s consistent support for abuse victims: “Pope Francis fully recognizes the egregious failures of the Church and its clergy who abused children and the devastating impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones.” He continued that Francis’ many statements insisting on a “zero-tolerance” policy for abuse in the Church “are genuine and they are his commitment.”
The pope expressed that he was grateful for Cardinal O’Malley’s statement, especially its acknowledgment of Francis’s past support for sex abuse victims.
Update 1/31/2018: The Vatican released a statement on Tuesday indicating that Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a well respected expert in the fight against clerical sex crimes, will be traveling to Chile to investigate Bishop Barros in light of "some recently received information".
David O'Neill contributed to this article