ROME — Despite protests that appointment of a new bishop in Chile allegedly linked to the country’s most notorious abuser priest undercuts a “zero tolerance” stance, the country’s bishops’ conference issued a statement on Wednesday pledging support for the controversial prelate.
“Given the various manifestations” that have surrounded the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to the small Osorno diocese, the bishops said, they wanted to vow “a spirit of faith and obedience to Pope Francis.”
The prelates said they were close to the priests, deacons, consecrated, and lay people of the diocese, “called by Jesus to be disciples and missionaries, in communion with their shepherd.”
They expressed their commitment to continue praying so that the faithful and the bishop can walk together “being one in the Lord.”
The declaration from the Permanent Committee of the Chilean Bishop’s Conference comes days after Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati of Santiago de Chile said that “the Holy Father has chosen a shepherd for the Church of Osorno and we, as Catholics, are in communion with the pope.”
On March 13 Ezzati also said that he had spoken with Barros on different occasions, and that the bishops will “support what we have to support.”
Barros, previously Chile’s military chaplain, was appointed in mid-January as the new bishop of the small Osorno diocese and is scheduled to be installed on March 21. Since the announcement, many have rejected the pope’s decision, with local priests, politicians, and faithful collecting signatures asking for it to be rescinded.
Speaking at Chile’s Catholic University, Ezzati said that he was immensely hurt by the situation and that he “understands and tries to comprehend the feelings of different people.”
Nevertheless, the cardinal said, the Barros appointment is a decision made by the Holy See and the pope, “who has clearly discerned all this and made a conscious decision.”
On Monday, Barros wrote a letter addressing the priests, deacons, religious, and faithful of his new diocese. In it, he states that he had no knowledge of abuses committed by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, and that he adhered to a 2011 finding of guilt by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Barros is one of four bishops mentored by Karadima, a longtime point of reference for Catholic clergy in the country. Now 84, Karadima was sentenced by the Vatican to a cloistered life of “penitence and prayer” in January 2011 after being found guilty of pedophilia and abuse of his ecclesiastical position.
“I had no knowledge of the allegations against Rev. Karadima while serving as secretary to [Chilean] Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno, and had no knowledge nor did I imagine those grave abuses this priest was committing against his victims,” Barros said.
“I understand those who have felt sadness or bothered,” Barros said in his statement, “but I have confidence that knowing one another and working together for the Osorno community we can all grow with united serenity in our evangelical tasks.”
Karadima’s victims have accused Barros and three other bishops of covering for the priest while he sexually abused altar boys during the 1980s and 1990s. They also claim that Barros intercepted and destroyed a letter denouncing the crimes addressed to Fresno.
On the accusations made against him, Barros said that he’s “deeply pained by the hurt that for long years has affected the victims.”
“Together with the whole Church, I reiterate that there’s no place in the priesthood for those who commit these abuses, and that the prevention and promotion of adequate treatment have to be a pillar in our ecclesial path,” Barros said in the letter.
Barros also referred to a personal conversation with the pope from last February.
“[Francis] encouraged me to take over this new pastoral challenge with humility and generosity, serving the people of God in Osorno in Jesus’ name, especially the poorest ones,” the bishop said in the letter.
German Rev. Peter Kliegel, who’s been in Chile for the past 49 years, sent a letter to Pope Francis this week asking him to revisit the decision, saying that Barros “has no credibility,” and that the encounter between the bishop and his priests, held in March 4, was “open and honest, but difficult and the approach painful.”
Kliegel was also the man responsible for a petition signed by 31 priests of the diocese sent to the papal representative in Chile, requesting the Vatican to rescind the appointment.
When Barros’ transfer was announced in January, Juan Carlos Cruz, a former seminarian and one of Karadima’s victims, accused the bishop of covering up the priest’s sexual abuses, being present while the abuses took place, threatening seminarians, and “doing Karadima’s dirty work.”
James Hamilton, another of Karadima’s victims, has also testified that he saw Barros in the room while he was abused by his former mentor.
“This is who gets named to be bishop of Osorno?” Hamilton told CNN. “For those of us who know the truth of this story – and apparently the Vatican also knows – this it is unbelievable,” he said.
“The Chilean people won’t take this anymore, it’s denigrating to the country, to our international image, to our children … We can’t tolerate this [sexual abuse] not by family members, not by our bishops. This needs to stop.”
The case of the victims against Karadima has been dismissed by Chilean civil courts twice: In 2010, before the Vatican’s ruling, and then again in 2011, because the statute of limitations had expired.
With the Church’s help, Judge Jessica González did determine that the abuse allegations were true.
Cruz, Hamilton, and a third victim, José Andrés Murillo, are currently in a legal battle with the diocese of Santiago de Chile, demanding a public apology from the Chilean Church, for the institution to recognize Karadima’s crimes, and financial compensation of $700,000.
Outside the church in Osorno where the Barros is set to celebrate the imposition Mass on March 21, protesters have been holding candlelight vigils and promising to stop the liturgy. On Saturday, while the Mass is taking place, they’ll celebrate a parallel liturgy, dressed in black, as a sign of mourning.
Juan Carlos Claret Pool, head of a lay movement requesting Barros’ dismissal, told Crux that they know that what they’re asking isn’t a trivial thing.
Using Benedict XVI’s resignation from the papacy as an example, Pool says that “Barros is a son of the Church,” and as such, they don’t expect for him to leave the priesthood but to perhaps serve in an administrative role.
“We invite him to discern if he really loves the Church and to act accordingly,” Pool said. “It’s been proved he can’t serve it properly as a bishop.”