IQUIQUE, Chile – During his trip to Chile, one of the questions that loomed large was the situation of Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of sexual abuse of covering up the abuse by a popular preacher years ago. Yet on Thursday, the pope said that he’s yet to see evidence of wrongdoing, and that what’s being said against the bishop is a “calumny.”
“The day I’m presented with proof against Bishop Barros, I will see,” Francis told journalists as he arrived in Iquique, in northern Chile, to celebrate his last Mass on Chilean soil.
“There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny,” the pope said.
Barros, together with at least three other bishops who today serve in the Chilean episcopacy, have been accused of turning a blind eye to acts of abuse by victims of Father Fernando Karadima, once considered the preacher of Santiago’s elite, but who in 2011 was found guilty of sexually abusing minors over decades.
In 2015 Francis caused an uproar when he decided to transfer Barros to the southern city of Osorno, from his previous post of being bishop of the Chilean armed forces.
Crux’s Austen Ivereigh spoke with Barros and the Bishop of Talca, Horacio Valenzuela, who are both accused by three victims of witnessing their abuse and covering it up.
While both acknowledged the devastating impact of the abuse itself, both also firmly denied any role in a cover-up.
Earlier on Thursday, when he arrived in Iquique, Barros was questioned by journalists and said that “the Holy Father was very affectionate with me and supportive.”
The bishop also said that the pontiff had given him “words of encouragement” after the demonstrations against him that took place throughout the visit.
A group known as the Laymen and Laywomen of Osorno was in Santiago and Temuco, a southern Chilean city Francis visited on Wednesday, protesting with signs saying that Osorno is suffering, and insisting Barros covered up the abuse.
Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Karadima’s victims, reacted to the pope’s comments on Twitter: “As if one could have taken a selfie or a picture as Karadima was abusing me or others, with Juan Barros standing there seeing it all. These people from the top are crazy and Pope Francis speaks of reparation for the victims. We’re still the same and his apology is still empty.”
Bishop Ignacio González of San Bernardo is quoted by local news organization La Tercera saying that he had heard the pope supporting Barros.
“The pope stopped today in front of Juan Barros and told him ‘keep going,’ and I heard it with my own ears,” González said.
Reportedly, the show of support took place on Wednesday, after Francis said Mass in Temuco.
Francis began his trip in Chile by apologizing for the abuses of minors perpetrated by priests.
“I feel bound to express my pain and shame, shame I feel for the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church,” Francis said. “I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask for forgiveness and to make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again.”