There were certain words that Chileans were hoping that Pope Francis would say during his three-day visit to our country last week. They were hoping he would denounce the sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic clergy, and particularly the offenses perpetrated by a corrupt and malevolent priest named Fernando Karadima. They were also waiting for Francis to condemn the hierarchs in the Catholic Church who had silenced and humiliated the victims and helped to cover up Karadima’s crimes.
Above all, my compatriots wanted the pope to publicly chide Bishop Juan Barros, who had been Karadima’s protégé and, according to reports (denied by Barros), had witnessed his mentor’s pedophilia. The issue of Barros mattered symbolically because the pope himself, in 2015,had appointed this collaborator of Karadima’s as the bishop of Osorno, a city in southern Chile, in spite of angry complaints from the congregation.
In an op-ed I wrote for The New York Times that appeared just before the papal visit, I argued that, for Chileans, the way in which Francis handled this case would be a critical test of whether he could restore the prestige of the disgraced local Church, so wounded by these scandals, to the noble place it had held in public sympathy for decades because of its brave opposition to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990). Pope Francis failed that test.
He did express “shame and pain” at the abuse of minors by members of the clergy, and he did hold a brief meeting with some of the victims—though not with any of those who had been mistreated by Karadima, or with anyone who has blamed Barros for his connivance. But Barros was flagrantly present at three ceremonies over which the pope officiated in Chile during the visit, and on one occasion, the pontiff embraced the bishop and kissed him on the cheek in a display of affection and support.
This was not entirely surprising. The Catholic Church is known for circling the wagons when there is a crisis, defending the institution at all costs, and this pope, after all, pointedly attended the funeral of the notorious Cardinal Law, whose cover-up of the depredations of the Catholic clergy in Boston was the subject of the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. What nobody could have predicted was one word that Francis did indeed utter on the last day of his trip, just as he was leaving the country. Asked about Barros, Francis lost his temper and, with uncharacteristic vehemence, stated that there was not a shred of evidence against the bishop of Osorno and that all the accusations against him were nothing more than “calumnia,” slander.
It is difficult to exaggerate the outrage that greeted this attack upon the integrity of the victims and their testimony. One, Juan Carlos Cruz, who had been abused many times by Karadima, tweeted that perhaps as proof the pope needed him, Cruz, to have taken a selfie while Karadima raped him as Barros looked on. Other Chileans mocked Francis, calling him a hypocrite and worse.
For me, personally, it felt like a betrayal. When I was sixteen years old, Karadima tried unsuccessfully, on several occasions, to convert me to Catholicism. I have no “evidence” that he would not let go of my hand while he promised the fires of Hell if I did not yield to his guidance. Having escaped unscathed from his clutches, I can well imagine how his victims feel when it is demanded that they provide proof of what happened to them. No wonder they are indignant.
But the chief rebuke came from an American clergyman, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who heads the Vatican Committee for the Protection of Minors. This prelate—from Boston, perhaps notably—wrote that the pope’s words were “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy,” and added: “Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claim then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.” The cardinal did not doubt, however, that the pope felt the pain of those survivors. O’Malley had seen Francis weep and pray with other victims of abuse in multiple occasions.
What nobody has been able to explain is how the pope could have committed such a colossal blunder when, at worst, he could have easily sidestepped the issue. You do not get to be the first Latin American and the first Jesuit to be elected as the successor of Peter if you are not a savvy operator. Why sabotage his own message in Chile, and elsewhere, with that one word, “slander”? Why erase the memory of all the other wonderful words he’d said during his sojourn: words in defense of indigenous rights, refugees, and the environment; his call to young people to set aside despair and commit themselves to a world without greed and exploitation; his challenge to the priests and nuns to dedicate their lives to the sick, the elderly, the homeless; the words with which he comforted incarcerated women, reminding them that they were loved and should not be despised for having spent time in jail?
Why go out of his way to attack those who were demanding he face the uncomfortable truth about Bishop Barros and his complicity in the sins of Karadima? Why, when he half-apologized this week, on the plane back to Rome, did Francis still adamantly insist on the innocence of Barros?
It seems to me that the answer may lie deep in Pope Francis’s own turbulent past. From 1974 to 1983, the military of his native Argentina waged what has become known as the Dirty War, torturing, killing, and disappearing many thousands of citizens. The Catholic bishops of Argentina, in contrast to the courage shown by their Chilean brothers, were vocally supportive of that repression. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Francis was then known, was at the time the provincial superior (or head) of the Jesuit Order in his country.
Although he was opposed to this regime of terror and personally intervened to save the lives of several endangered men and women (even giving one persecuted man his own ID card so that the man could escape the country), Bergoglio maintained a public silence on the horrors of the dictatorship. Later, there were claimsthat he had collaborated with the military junta, and failed to protect two priests under his jurisdiction who were arrested and tortured. Though the justice system in Argentina investigated Bergoglio and found no evidence against him, and the allegations of complicity were mostly disproven, those charges resurfaced once Francis was anointed as pope. The Vatican insisted that “there has never been a credible, concrete accusation against him,” and the pope has dismissed the accusations as “slander”—the very word that Francis used to defend Bishop Barros.
It seems probable, then, that the pope saw in Barros a reflection of his own experience: someone who believes he has been falsely indicted, but is unable to clear his name, who feels he has been a target of malicious left-wing and anticlerical activists determined to stain the reputation of an innocent man. It would be tragic, but all too human, if this were the explanation for Francis’s offensive and counter-productive defense of Barros.
The pope has often referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story of this stranger who tends to an unknown traveler who had been beaten and stripped of his clothing and left half-dead, and takes care of him as if he were a neighbor. And Jesus condemns the priest who passed by that injured man with utter indifference, without offering any aid.
Francis, tormented perhaps by his own dark and secret history, has misunderstood who are the victims and who are the perpetrators in this Chilean story. Instead of following the example of the Good Samaritan and comforting the wounded bodies and souls of those violated by sexual abuse, he has sided with the priest, Barros, and the other prelates who not only did nothing to alleviate that suffering, but were part of the gang that beat the victims and robbed them of their dignity.
Did the pope not understand that this was a chance to redeem himself for not having been a Good Samaritan in Argentina? Did he not realize that this was a unique opportunity to show the courage he lacked years ago? Instead, he has damaged his moral standing and weakened the impact of his vital messages about the threats to humanity of poverty, war, and ecological disaster.
May the God Francis believes in forgive him.
This column originally appeared on the New York Review of Books.