Angry Protest Over New Bishop in Chile
By PASCALE BONNEFOY
MARCH 21, 2015
SANTIAGO, Chile — Hundreds of demonstrators dressed in black barged into a cathedral in a city in southern Chile on Saturday and interrupted the installation ceremony for the city’s new Roman Catholic bishop, Juan Barros, whom they accuse of complicity in a notorious case of clerical sexual abuse, blocking his passage and shouting, “Barros, get out of the city!”
The scene inside the Cathedral San Mateo de Osorno was chaotic, with television images showing clashes between Barros opponents, carrying black balloons, and Barros supporters, carrying white ones. Radio reports said several protesters tried to climb onto the altar where Bishop Barros was standing. After the ceremony, he left the cathedral through a side door escorted by police special forces. Outside, about 3,000 people, including local politicians and members of Congress, held signs and chanted demands that he resign.
Weeks of protests, candlelight vigils and letters to Pope Francis were not enough to persuade him to rescind his decision in January to appoint Bishop Barros to lead the Diocese of Osorno, 570 miles south of the capital, Santiago. Bishop Barros was a close associate of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a prominent Santiago priest whom the Vatican found guilty of sexual abuse in 2011. Father Karadima, now 84, was ordered to retire to a “life of prayer and penitence.”
The appeal was also a test case for the pope’s stated policy of zero tolerance for clerical abuses.
“We are used to the blows by the Chilean Catholic hierarchy, but it’s especially hurtful when the slap in the face comes from Pope Francis himself,” Juan Carlos Cruz, 51, who said he was abused by Father Karadima in the ’80s, said in a telephone interview. “We hoped he was different.”
On Saturday, the Vatican declined to comment on Francis’ appointment of Bishop Barros.
Mr. Cruz and three other young men who were devoted followers of Father Karadima, and members of a Catholic youth movement he oversaw, accused him of sexually abusing them over two decades, starting when they were teenagers. Criminal charges were filed against the priest alleging abuse during the years 1980 to 1995, but a Chilean judge dismissed them in 2011, saying the statute of limitations had expired.
In a February letter to Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, the papal nuncio to Chile, Mr. Cruz accused Bishop Barros of covering up Father Karadima’s abuses, threatening seminarians if they spoke out about them and, while serving as secretary to Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno, destroying letters addressed to him reporting the abuses.
“When we were in Karadima’s bedroom, Juan Barros saw how he touched us and made us kiss him,” said Mr. Cruz, referring to himself and other young victims. “He witnessed all of that countless times. And he has covered it all up.”
In a statement addressed to the Osorno community, Bishop Barros denied any knowledge of the abuses. “I never imagined the serious abuses committed by this priest,” he said. “I have never approved or participated in these gravely dishonest acts.”
In February, more than 30 priests and deacons of the Osorno Diocese signed a letter to Archbishop Scapolo asking the pope to reverse his decision. “We don’t feel embraced, and much less understood, by our church hierarchy,” they said. “The spiritual union of our church has been damaged.” Days earlier, 51 members of the Chilean Congress sent a letter to the Vatican asking the pope to revoke the appointment.
On Wednesday, the Chilean Bishops Conference issued a brief statement backing Pope Francis in “a spirit of faith and obedience” and calling for the unity of the church, without addressing the accusations against the bishop.
The archbishop of Concepción, Fernando Chomalí, met with the pope in Rome on March 6. “I spoke to him at length about the consequences the appointment has had in Osorno and the country,” Archbishop Chomalí said in a text message. “He was very well-informed of the letters he had received through different channels. The pope told me he had analyzed the situation in detail and found no reason” to reverse his decision.
Juan Carlos Claret, 21, a law student and church member who has been leading the protests in Osorno, said at least six candlelight vigils had been held in front of the cathedral in recent weeks. “A bishop has to have moral authority and Barros doesn’t have it, not for priests, lay people or civil society,” he said. “What does it take for Barros to resign, if he has the entire community against him?”