Pope Francis to Chileans: Stop slandering my bishop

This isn’t the ending that the Vatican had hoped for its papal visit to Chile. At the end of a trip designed to heal wounds, Pope Francis’ final address may have poured salt into them instead. The pontiff accused critics of Bishop Juan Barros of slander and “calumny” in accusing him of complicity in a cover-up of a notorious sex scandal that ended seven years ago:

Pope Francis accused victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile of slander Thursday, an astonishing end to a visit meant to help heal the wounds of a sex abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic Church its credibility in the country.

Francis said that until he sees proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, such accusations against Barros are “all calumny.”

The pope’s remarks drew shock from Chileans and immediate rebuke from victims and their advocates. They noted the accusers were deemed credible enough by the Vatican that it sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for his crimes in 2011. A Chilean judge also found the victims to be credible, saying that while she had to drop criminal charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, proof of his crimes wasn’t lacking.

Bear in mind that Francis isn’t accusing the victims of slander over the allegations of sexual abuse itself. The Vatican convicted Karadima in 2011 on sexual abuse charges and forced him into retirement and isolation far away from his victims. The New York Times called it at the time “a rare case of a powerful church figure being called to account for the charges of sexual abuse that have swept the Catholic world the past few years,” and noted that it served as a vindication of his victims.

However, Francis later appointed Karadima protege Juan Barros as military bishop of Chile, a move that reopened the case and prompted widespread anger in the country. The victims and their supporters have accused Barros of complicity or at least knowledge of Karadima’s crimes and want him removed from office. As the WSJ’s Vatican reporter Francis X. Rocca points out, this is what Francis has criticized as slander — but it’s still going to be problematic:

Undoubtedly, beginning with why he decided to confront accusers in such a fashion. The pope made the trip in large part to heal the wounds caused by his appointment of Barros and the lingering resentment over Karadima. Anger still runs high in Chile over Karadima’s abuses and the silence of the Catholic Church’s leadership during those crimes. Francis had appeared to have dialed down some of the tension before this final speech, which makes the decision to go on the attack all the more inexplicable. This was a strategy that would have best been deployed from the Vatican itself.

At least at the moment, the pontiff appears to have undone all he accomplished and perhaps made things worse than they were at the start in Chile. He may also have done damage on his own efforts to clean up the remainders of the sex scandal that plagued the Catholic Church over the last several decades, where his credibility had already taken a hit with the departure of abuse victims from the investigatory body Francis commissioned to deal with the issue honestly and openly. Accusing victims of slander — no matter how nuanced the context — is not going to do much to keep that credibility from eroding further.

Update: More from the WSJ’s Ryan Dube, who spoke to some of the victims after the remarks were made:

“The day that you bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” Pope Francis told Chilean journalists during his last stop in the South American country in the northern city of Iquique. “There isn’t any proof, it is all calumny. Is that clear?” A video of the pope’s comments were posted online by newspaper La Tercera. …

“It is an outrageous comment,” Juan Carlos Cruz, one of the victims, told The Wall Street Journal on Friday. “I wake up and think, did this really happen. That the pope said that about us?”Mr. Cruz was one of the accusers in the Vatican’s ruling that condemned Rev. Karadima for abusing minors. His accusations were also included in a criminal case that were thrown out by a judge due to the statute of limitations.

“What is outrageous by saying there is no proof is that… should I take a selfie when I’m being abused and say, hold it one second while I take a photograph with you abusing me and Barros standing beside me,” he added. “How do you do that?”

Don’t expect this to go away quietly, at least not in Chile.