Pope apologises to victims of abuse for words used in defence of Bishop Barros

By Junno Arocho Esteves
Catholic News Service

ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT FROM PERU (CNS) — Pope Francis apologized to victims of clergy sex abuse, saying he unknowingly wounded them by the way he defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by his mentor.

Speaking with journalists on his flight to Rome from Lima, Peru, Jan. 21, the pope said he only realized later that his words erroneously implied that victims’ accusations are credible only with concrete proof.

“To hear that the pope says to their face, ‘Bring me a letter with proof,’ is a slap in the face,” the pope said.

Pope Francis was referring to a response he gave in Iquique, Chile, Jan. 18 when local reporters asked about his support for Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, given accusations that the bishop may have been aware of abuse perpetrated by his former mentor, Father Fernando Karadima. The priest was sentenced to a life of prayer and penance by the Vatican after he was found guilty of sexually abusing boys.

“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?” the pope had told the reporters in Iquique.

His response provoked further outrage, especially from Father Karadima’s victims who said the pope’s response made his earlier apologies for the church’s failure to protect sex abuse victims seem hollow.

Asked about the incident during the flight back to Rome, Pope Francis said he meant to use the word “evidence,” not “proof.” The way he phrased his response, he said, caused confusion and was “not the best word to use to approach a wounded heart.”

“Of course, I know that there are many abused people who cannot bring proof (or) they don’t have it,” he said. “Or at times they have it but they are ashamed and cover it up and suffer in silence. The tragedy of the abused is tremendous.”

However, the pope told reporters on the papal flight he still stood firmly behind his defense of Bishop Barros, because he was “personally convinced” of the bishop’s innocence after the case was investigated twice with no evidence emerging.

Pope Francis said that while “covering up abuse is an abuse in itself,” if he punished Bishop Barros without moral certainty, “I would be committing the crime of a bad judge.”

During the inflight news conference, Pope Francis answered eight questions over the course of an hour, although the conference was interrupted by turbulence, which forced the pope to sit for about five minutes.

As he did in November on his return from Bangladesh, he said he only wanted to respond to questions related to the trip.

Pope Francis told reporters he appreciated the statement made Jan. 20 by Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, acknowledging the pain survivors of abuse felt because of the pope’s statement about Bishop Barros.

“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 wrote.

He also said, “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.”

The pope said he was grateful for Cardinal O’Malley’s statement because it struck the right balance between listing what he has done to show his support for sex abuse victims and the pain experienced by victims because of the pope’s remarks.

Pope Francis also spoke about the scandal-plagued Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a Catholic movement based in Peru.

The movement’s founder, Luis Fernando Figari, has been accused of the sexual and psychological abuse of members; he has been ordered by the Vatican to remain in Rome and not have any contact with the movement.

“He declared himself innocent of the charges against him,” Pope Francis told reporters, and he has appealed his cause to the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court. According to the information the pope has received, he said, “the verdict will be released in less than a month.”

Pope Francis also was asked about the status of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he set up in 2014. The three-year terms of its members expired in December and some have questioned whether child protection really is a priority when the commission’s membership was allowed to lapse.

Before the terms ended, he said, the members decided to recommend who should serve a second term and offering the names of possible new members.

The final list, he said, arrived on his desk a week before the trip began “and now it is going through the normal channels in the Curia.

– – –

Similar Posts


  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Yes, EVIDENCE, not necessarily PROOF. An apology more in the mode we have come to expect from Francis.

    Does the similarity between the case of Luis Fernando Figari’s Sodalitium Christianae Vitae and that of Marcial Maciel Degollado’s Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi remind us we should have already been clamouring for the de-canonisation of John Paul II and the early pre-canonisation of Benedict XVI? But Francis is wise to leave it to the slow grinding of the mills of the Apostolic Signatura. Best to turn a deaf ear sometimes to the righteous ‘subito’ mob.

  2. iggy o'donovan says:

    I am happy to accept Francis’ explanation that when commenting initially he got the terminology wrong and had inflicted pain by appearing to doubt the truthfulness of survivors. Cardinal O’Malley I believe is to be thanked for defusing the situation. O ‘Malley who works at the coalface with many victims instantly recognised that Francis had erred and his timely intervention did Francis and indeed all of us a huge favour.

  3. This is the leading article in this weekends Tablet.

    Pope and Primate are both in error. 

    By a twist of fate, Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, are at the centre of two separate rows. Both concern a bishop, and in both cases the issue is the sexual abuse of children. The cases reflect badly on the judgement of Pope and Primate. Both indicate an institutional neglect of the demands of natural justice.
    In Pope Francis’ case, he found a way to limit the self-inflicted damage, while Archbishop Welby has, so far at least, refused to back down. As a result there will be calls in the next General Synod meeting for his resignation. Of the two episodes, that concerning the Pope is the most significant, because it raises a host of questions related to the Catholic Church’s current handling of the child abuse crisis. Bishop Bell died in 1958. Bishop Barros is currently Bishop of Osorno, Chile, a post he was appointed to by Pope Francis.
    Apart from the Barros issue, last week’s papal visit to Chile and Peru was an outstanding example of Francis’ public style. He lambasted the rich and embraced the poor, especially the indigenous peoples of Latin America who have had such a poor deal, and he remonstrated fiercely with those who exploit and abuse the natural environment. Apart from his handling of the Barros issue, therefore, it could be counted a great success. But that cast a shadow over the rest. Those who had an interest in disregarding his admonitions in the name of social justice had an excuse. Many of his supporters are now wondering whether their hopes for the innovative and refreshing “pastoral paradigm” behind his papacy might be misplaced.
    Bishop Barros was appointed by Pope Francis despite a groundswell of concern in Chile that he had been too close to a charismatic priest, Fr Fernando Karadima, who was later unmasked as a serial abuser. Some of the abuser’s victims went further and alleged that, to their knowledge, Barros was complicit. Asked about the case, Francis repeated the official Vatican line that these charges – which the bishop has always strenuously denied – had been investigated and dismissed. The Pope described such allegations as a slander against an innocent man. “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?” he said to a group of Chilean journalists.
    He was promptly rebuked by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston and chair of the Pope’s own commission on child abuse, who said such words were “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse”. The Pope had implied that unless victims had proof, they were not to be believed. But that goes to the very heart of the Church’s shameful failure, countless times and all over the world, to take allegations of the abuse of children by priests seriously enough. Even when the Pope later withdrew his words and apologised, claiming he had meant to say “evidence” rather than “proof”, what the incident reveals about his mindset is troubling.
    Behind all this is the absence in the Vatican of any proper forum or tribunal for dealing with allegations against bishops. Because of this, Bishop Barros himself, not to mention his accusers, have been denied natural justice. A tribunal was promised, but has not appeared. Secret Vatican investigations fail the first test of justice: that it must not only be done but be seen to be done. Two members of the papal commission on sex abuse have resigned because they feel the issue is being marginalised in the Vatican, and the process for appointing their successors has not been given any urgency. They and other commission members had been very critical of the appointment of Bishop Barros.
    The bishop is now personally responsible for the safety of children in his diocese. Is it reasonable to expect parents to trust him? Given the deep and permanent psychological damage that child abuse can cause the Church cannot afford to take any risks in this area. When the allegations against Karadima first surfaced, Barros had defended him. Barros’ close relationship with Karadima should have been more than enough to bar him from appointment to the care of a diocese.
    It is a feature of child abuse that abusers often appear upright, even distinguished, to those who know them well. They find it impossible to think ill of such a person. This is the defence offered by Archbishop Welby, who has refused to acknowledge that the Church of England’s handling of a posthumous complaint against Bishop George Bell of Chichester was fundamentally flawed. An inquiry by Lord Carlile QC found that Bell’s reputation had been “wrongly and unnecessarily damaged by the Church”.
    Archbishop Welby said after the Carlile inquiry was published that in spite of it, a “significant cloud” remained over Bishop Bell’s memory. This led to a campaign to persuade him to withdraw this remark, which this week he refused to do. “Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero,” he said. “He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget good.” That implies that Welby believes that evil acts had indeed been committed, and people are refusing to believe it.
    For generations of Anglicans, Bishop Bell had been a shining example of prophetic courage, not least in his denunciation of the RAF’s carpet bombing of German cities at a cost of thousands of innocent lives. He was also a lifeline to the anti-Nazi resistance movement in Germany. He would have been the natural successor to William Temple as Archbishop of Canterbury were it not for the opposition of the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
    The single allegation of child abuse against him was first made some 38 years after his death, and Bishop Bell’s supporters say the most likely explanation is that this was a case of mistaken identity. The Church of England jumped too quickly, without anything like due process, to the conclusion that he was probably guilty. Just as Pope Francis has jumped too quickly to the conclusion that Bishop Barros is innocent.
    In neither case has justice been done, or seen to be done. Nor has the cause of child protection – and public confidence in the church’s handling of it – been enhanced. This cannot be the end of either affair. Both Churches have more explaining to do.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.