ROSARIO, Argentina – Months after his rocky trip to Chile in mid-January, Pope Francis’s visit to the Latin American country is still grabbing headlines, mostly related to the way he’s handled the country’s clerical sexual abuse scandals. The latest: News broke on Tuesday that while in Chile, he met with a Marist brother who’s charged with covering up abuse cases in the country.
The Chilean website The Clinic published a picture showing Francis meeting the recently deceased Brother Mariano Varona, who passed away on Sunday, and is considered one of the key figures in the coverup of cases of child sexual abuse within the Marist congregation.
A Vatican spokesman told Crux on Tuesday, however, that Varona was part of a large group of people who greeted the pope during his farewell to the country, and was invited only because the Marist residence is located in front of the papal embassy where Francis stayed.
“There was no private meeting with Mariano Varona in Chile, nor any private conversation,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told Crux. “As happens always on the last day of a trip, a large number of people are invited for a baciamano during the farewell in the official residence,” Burke said, using the Italian phrase for the act of kissing the pope’s ring, and which informally simply means a greeting.
“Varona came because he was the superior of the Marist house in front of the nunciatura,” Burke said, using the official term for the ambassador’s residence, “and he was one of more than 70 people who greeted the pope briefly at that time.”
The strong suggestion in Burke’s statement is that Francis likely did not know who Varona was, or the charges against him, at the time of the brief encounter.
The picture shows the two shaking hands, with the papal representative in the country, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, in the background. The meeting took place on the morning of Jan. 18, the last day of Francis’s Chile visit.
Varona, a Spaniard, was one of the spokesmen of the Marist Brothers in Chile, and the man responsible for hearing the allegations against the order. After decades of inaction, the order has come forward in recent months, reporting allegations against eight brothers to the country’s Public Ministry.
In January, ahead of the papal visit, Varona acknowledged that he knew of cases of abuse, having heard of one allegation back in 1981. At the time, according to what he told El Periodico, he didn’t think it was a case of abuse but “erotic games and naked pictures” between one of the accused brothers, Armando Alegria, and the victim, a student at one of the schools the congregation operates in Chile.
He also said that at the time, those things weren’t “made public.” He denied being responsible for cover-up, in some cases alleging that he’d taken the allegations to his superior, and acknowledged that as provincial of the order, he did nothing with the allegations “out of respect to the brother.”
An official at the nunciature told the site that they had invited several groups, including people who are close [to the residence], “so that they would have the opportunity to greet the Holy Father” before he left.
“It was a very brief greeting,” they quote the nunciature as saying. “Among those peoples, Brother Mariano Varona was included as the superior of the Marist community that lives in front of the nunciature.”
Jaime Coiro, spokesman of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, acknowledged having seen the picture, but clarified that they didn’t handle the pope’s private agenda: “The only meeting that the Holy See’s spokesman informed us of was with two victims of abuse.”
Two weeks before the pope’s arrival, Varona presented a folder to the nunciature with the internal investigation they had launched regarding abuses, with the aim of it reaching the pope.
The meeting took place in a country already reeling over the pope’s handling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros, of Osorno, who’s accused of having covered up for the country’s most notorious pedophile priest, Father Fernando Karadima.
While Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta was in Chile in late February, charged by Francis with investigating the Barros situation, he and a Vatican priest also met with victims of the Marist Brothers. The Chilean Church also began an internal investigation in early February.
The revelation of the picture of Varona has some victims and their advocates in Chile questioning the pope’s sincerity.
“This [picture] shows the priority of the pope is to defend the people who are invested with certain power, instead of taking a risk for the victims,” said Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman of a group of lay people of Osorno, who’ve protested Barros’ appointment to their diocese since it was announced, in 2015.
It would have been easy for the pope, Claret said in a statement confirmed by Crux, to meet with the victims of cases such as Karadima’s or the Marist brothers, “but he didn’t do so.”
“He prefers to be with wolves than to stay with the sheep,” Claret said. “This is something a shepherd can’t do. March 13 marked the 5th anniversary of his pontificate, and analysts agree that the visit to Chile has been his greatest stain, and what’s happened leads towards that direction.”