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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Pope sends sex crimes expert to Chile to investigate bishop

Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna would travel to Chile to dig deeper into the case of Juan Barros

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's senior sex crimes investigator, will travel to Chile 'to listen to those who have expressed the desire to provide elements' about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. AP / Gregorio Borgia
Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's senior sex crimes investigator, will travel to Chile 'to listen to those who have expressed the desire to provide elements' about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. AP / Gregorio Borgia

After excoriating public criticism, Pope Francis decided on Tuesday to send the Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator to Chile to examine a bishop accused of covering up for the country’s most notorious paedophile cleric.

The Vatican said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna would travel to Chile “to listen to those who have expressed the desire to provide elements” about the case of Bishop Juan Barros.

The move marks the first time the Vatican has launched a full-blown investigation into allegations of a sex abuse cover-up, and it comes after Francis was harshly criticised by the media, survivors of abuse, fellow Jesuits and some senior advisers for his defence of the bishop.

The Barros controversy dominated the pope’s trip to Chile and Peru and exposed his blind spot about clerical abuse. The head of an advisory panel, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, publicly rebuked Francis for his dismissive treatment of victims.

Rev Barros was a protege of Fernando Karadima, a charismatic and politically powerful priest who was sanctioned by the Vatican for abusing minors in 2011. His victims testified to Chilean prosecutors that Rev Barros and other priests in the El Bosque community saw Karadima kissing youngsters and were aware of his behaviour but did nothing.

After Karadima was sanctioned by a church court, Chile’s bishops were so intent on trying to stem the fallout from the scandal that they persuaded the Vatican to have Rev Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops resign and take a year-long sabbatical, according to a 2015 letter obtained by The Associated Press.

But Francis stepped in and put a stop to the plan, arguing there was no proof of the charges against them. He overruled the Chilean bishops’ objections and, in January 2015, appointed Rev Barros to the diocese of Osorno. His presence has split the community, with both laity and priests rejecting him.

The issue haunted the pope’s recent trip, and imploded after he told a Chilean journalist on January 18 that the accusations against Rev Barros were slander and he demanded proof. After Cardinal O’Malley rebuked him, Francis apologised, but he stood by his belief that the accusations against Rev Barros were “calumny”.

“I am convinced he is innocent,” Pope Francis said while returning to Italy from Peru on January 21.

The pope seemed unaware that Karadima’s victims had placed the bishop at the scene and were the source of the accusations against him.

Rev Barros said on Tuesday that he welcomed “with faith and joy” the pope’s decision to have Rev Scicluna investigate and prayed that the process would uncover the truth. He has denied seeing any abuse or knowing of it.

In the days after the pope’s comments, Karadima victim Juan Carlos Cruz pointedly told Francis that he could not offer the proof the pope demanded.

“As if I could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all,” Mr Cruz tweeted on January 19.

After Francis insisted he had never received any testimony from victims but would welcome it, Mr Cruz told The Associated Press: “If he wanted evidence, why didn’t he reach out to us when we were willing to reaffirm the testimony that not only us, but so many witnesses, have been providing for more than 15 years?”

Rev Scicluna is going to Chile to do that. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the archbishop would travel to Santiago “as soon as possible”, but he noted that the case required preparation and thoroughness.

Karadima’s victims, who are Rev Barros’ main accusers, declined to comment on Tuesday on the advice of their lawyers. A group of lay people from Osorno, who have been protesting the bishop’s appointment for three years, said they would be willing to speak to Rev Scicluna but expressed some doubt about the procedure and his independence.

The decision to send Rev Scicluna to investigate allegations of a cover-up marks a new phase in the Vatican’s decades-long effort to come to terms with clergy abuse, and it could fuel demands for the Vatican to investigate and sanction religious superiors who turn a blind eye to priests who abuse children.

While thousands of abusive priests have been defrocked and sanctioned over the years, only a handful of bishops are known to have been removed because they mishandled reported cases.

Francis vowed to hold such bishops accountable, but he scrapped a proposed Vatican tribunal to discipline negligent bishops after canon lawyers objected. Instead, he said such cases would be investigated by Vatican offices, but the process lacks transparency.