ROME — Laypeople in Chile opposed to Pope Francis’ appointment of a bishop with ties to the country’s most notorious abuser priest have occupied the local cathedral, demanding the bishop’s resignation.
The demonstration came on Saturday, the anniversary of the day Pope Francis announced the appointment one year ago.
“We’re Catholics who oppose the pastoral exercise of Bishop [Juan de la Cruz] Barros,” the group, which calls itself the “Lay Men and Women of Osorno,” write in a statement issued Saturday night.
Osorno is a small diocese in southern Chile with a Catholic population of roughly 125,000. Francis appointed Barros its bishop in January 2015.
On Saturday, Osorno’s Cathedral of St. Matthew was occupied by some 30 people carrying signs demanding Barros’s resignation. On the same day, Pope Francis welcomed the top three representatives of the Chilean Catholic hierarchy to the Vatican, presumably, in part, to discuss the controversy around Barros.
The choice of Barros a year ago sparked nationwide protest, since he’s been accused of concealing sexual abuse allegations against the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a well-known local priest with strong ties to the country’s elite. In 2011, Karadima was sentenced by the Vatican to a life of “penance and prayer” after being found guilty of pedophilia and abuse of his ecclesiastical position.
Victims of Karadima have accused Barros and three other Chilean bishops — Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic, and Horacio Valenzuela — of covering up for Karadima while he sexually abused followers during the 1980s and 1990s.
The four bishops have defended their mentor and tried to discredit the victims, even after the Vatican determined the accusations had merit. However, there’s been no confirmation of any formal charges against the bishops for concealing crimes, either under the Church’s canon law or Chilean civil law.
In their statement, the protesters described their takeover of the cathedral as a “liturgical occupation.”
They accused the papal ambassador in Chile, Italian Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, and the local hierarchy of “negotiating” away their diocese, and requested a meeting to have an “open, fraternal, and power-free” dialogue.
The solution to this “grave crisis,” they wrote, will come only with Barros’s resignation.
“Because we’re a part of the people of God, despite the suffering caused by not being heard and [being] abandoned, we manifest yet again our option for dialogue,” they wrote.
Barros was installed in the diocese last March, in a ceremony that had to be cut short because of protests. While the bishop was celebrating the Mass, many in attendance screamed “pedophile” and “get out!” at Barros, who had served as Chile’s military chaplain prior to the transfer to Osorno.
In a video making the rounds on social media, filmed during a Mass before the occupation of the cathedral on Saturday, a woman is seen asking the bishop to resign.
“Please go away, make no more damage, so that this church can finally be united,” a woman who approached Barros during Communion tells him. “God bless you,” was his response, to which she says, “Yes, but you leave Osorno.”
In the background, a second person, presumably the one holding the camera, keeps asking, “Juan Carlos Cruz, do you remember the name Juan Carlos Cruz?”
Cruz is one of Karadima’s victims, and together with James Hamilton and Fernando Batlle, is currently battling the Chilean Church in court, asking for $700,000 in compensation.
“In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we ask: When will there be mercy for Osorno?” the protesters wrote in their manifesto.
Since the appointment of Barros, Church officials have been mostly quiet. The man behind the appointment however, hasn’t. In a video released last October (but filmed in St. Peter’s Square five months earlier), Pope Francis accused critics of “foolishness.”
With no prompting, Francis tells Jaime Coiro, a former spokesman of the Chilean bishops, that the local Church in Chile has “lost its head,” allowing a group of politicians to judge a bishop “with no proof whatsoever.”
“Think with the head, don’t be led around by the nose by these leftists who are the ones who put this [opposition] together,” the pope is heard saying.
The “leftists” to whom Francis referred are presumably 51 members of Chile’s Congress, most from the Socialist government of President Michelle Bachelet, who signed a petition opposing Barros’s nomination.
Regarding the accusations against the four bishops, the pontiff said in the video that they were “dismissed by the judicial courts.”
“I am the first one to judge and punish someone who’s being accused of these things, but in this case, there’s no proof. On the contrary,” Francis said in the video. “From the heart, I tell you. Let’s see if you help me with this, but don’t be led by the nose by these who’re trying to create a havoc, that are looking for slander.”