Backlash Against Chilean Bishop Threatens Francis' Reform Agenda

03/27/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated May 27, 2015

By Jason Berry

A thunderous protest engulfed the arrival of a controversial Chilean bishop to San Mateo cathedral on Saturday. To many, the appointment casts a shadow on Pope Francis' reform agenda for the clergy abuse crisis.

The scene of screaming protestors pushing and shoving as Bishop Juan Barros, 58, enters the cathedral in the southern Chilean city of Osorno can be seen on a YouTube clip.

Pope Francis' decision to send Barros, a bishop for 11 years who served as a military chaplain, to Osorno has ignited new media coverage on Rev. Fernando Karadima, 84, a notorious pedophile in Chile who was ousted by the Vatican four years ago, and who Barros used to share a close connection with.

Karadima was for many years the pastor of a parish in El Bosque, one of Santiago's upscale neighborhoods near a wooded park. Karadima had a cult-like following among youths he guided into seminary and had deep ties with politicians, the military and Vatican officials.

Barros and three other Karadima protégés grew up to become bishops.

"Pope Francis has to withdraw this appointment or I and others may find it impossible to stay on the commission," Peter Saunders, a clergy abuse survivor in London and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told GroundTruth in a lengthy email interview.

"I am beginning to get a sense of the misguided way in which many church officials operate," said Saunders, who said he met privately with the pope in July and came away impressed.

"I also sense that they feel extremely uncomfortable, probably threatened by the real prospect that their power -- the 'church's' power -- will diminish" in the oversight of bishops, Saunders said of the Vatican.

Three different boys once under Karadima's sway have become national figures in Chile by giving widely reported testimony of how the priest sexually abused them.

The most outspoken survivor, Juan Carlos Cruz, 51, has accused Barros of witnessing his abuse at the hands of Karadima, along with other cases, and covering them up.

"Barros knew what Karadima did to me -- he was there, he saw it as a seminarian eight years older than me," Juan Carlos Cruz told GroundTruth, recalling how Karadima abused him as a teenager.

"I am telling you, before God who is listening to us, it did not cross my mind that these things were going on," Barros said in a statement picked up by Patheos, a conservative Catholic website. "I would not have accepted it for any reason, and I am not a friend of Fernando Karadima."

Barros continued, "I never knew about these very tragic things. The pain of the victims hurts me enormously. I pray for those that carry this pain with them today."

Cruz and four other men testified at a 2010 criminal proceeding against Karadima, which ended on a statute of limitations dismissal. However, the judge delivered a stinging report on Karadima, who denied all the accusations.

The Karadima scandal ignited national media coverage of a kind never seen before in Chile, causing outrage against church leadership.

The Vatican opened a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigation, which took testimony from the same men and in 2011 ordered Karadima to a "life of prayer and penitence."

Francis' decision to send Barros to the Osorno diocese after an intense public outcry has stirred criticism of a pope known as a reformer, rebuilding a church he has likened to "a field hospital."

On March 6, the AP reported that 51 of Chile's 120 national lawmakers and 30 priests from the diocese urged Francis to rescind the appointment before Barros was installed.

Cruz and two other men have a pending civil lawsuit against Karadima and the Santiago archdiocese.

Why did Francis, one of the most adroit public figures in the lens of global media, push forward with the appointment of Bishop Barros despite warnings by many people of serious blowback?

Chile's cardinals and most of the bishops did not attend the ceremony, perhaps foreseeing the volatile emotions that erupted in the cathedral. Although the bishops' conference issued a statement supporting Barros, the absence of Chile's leading Catholic officials to ceremonially welcome a new brother in the ranks added to the controversy.

"I believe the Catholic Church is not listening to its people," Christian Democrat congressman Sergio Ojeda told La Tercera newspaper. "That is why we are asking for Bishop Barros to show dignity and resign, putting an end to this tremendous problem."

"If you preach zero tolerance and real bishop accountability and then go against everything you've said," Cruz said of Francis, "what are you actually saying to the people?"

"I spoke to [Francis] at length about the consequences the appointment has had in Osorno and the country," Archbishop Fernando Chomalí of Concepción told The New York Times of his March 6 meeting in Rome.

Cruz, who has published a bestselling memoir in Chile, says that Chomalí debriefed him after his return from Rome.

"Fernando told me, 'The pope knows everything about you and said, "I agree Juan Carlos has suffered too much."'"

Cruz's relationship with Archbishop Chomalí stands out in high relief from his statement of anguish toward Barros.

A banker's son raised in a privileged society that supported the Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s, Cruz was 15 when his father died.

The high school student turned to Karadima for solace, only to be ensnared in the priest's grooming rituals, which led to kissing and fondling, sometimes in front of older seminarians, Barros allegedly among them.

In a tormented adolescence, Cruz met Chomalí, then a young priest whose niece was in the adjacent hospital room as Cruz was recovering from a severe infection: He stuffed dirt in a post-surgical appendicitis wound, trying to kill himself.

Cruz recovered; the niece died. Her loss cemented a bond between the men, "though I never told Fernando what Karadima was doing to me at the time," says Cruz.

Cruz entered the diocesan seminary at 21 but didn't last long. He left religious life and became a journalist and eventually a corporate communications official based in Philadelphia, making occasional trips to Chile on vacation time.

Karadima's tentacles reached deep into the Chilean hierarchy.

Fernando Chomalí had become an auxiliary bishop in Santiago when Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa -- reputedly Karadima's most powerful defender -- was forced to publicly apologize in 2011.

Cardinal Errázuriz ignored a victim's allegations in 2003, telling Karadima not to worry, according to news accounts and legal testimony.

After other victims spoke out, Errázuriz delivered a 700-page personnel file on Karadima to Vatican investigators.

Bishop Chomalí reached out to Cruz through a cousin, according to Cruz, who says he rebuffed him at first. When they did finally meet, Chomalí apologized.

"We have a very good relationship now," says Cruz.

Despite being tarred in the Karadima scandal, Cardinal Errázuriz now serves as one of nine cardinals in Francis' circle of reform advisors.

The question of how Barros won his appointment has become a matter of open speculation in Chile, none of it favorable to church officials.

Barros as a seminarian became secretary to the late Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno, a position in which, says Cruz, "he knew everything going on in Chilean church. The triumvirate of power in the 1980s was Karadima, Cardinal Fresno and Archbishop Angelo Sodano" -- the Italian papal nuncio, or ambassador, who was openly supportive of the Pinochet regime.

Sodano left Chile in 1989 to become John Paul's Secretary of State, and in that position was responsible for the appointment of many nuncios, or ambassadors, until he retired in 2006, one year into Benedict's papacy. Sodano wielded immense power over appointments of bishops in Latin America.

Sodano is now Dean of the College of Cardinals.

As Karadima once helped Sodano with privileged information, Sodano rewarded Barros years later by helping him become a bishop after his role as a cardinal's secretary.

A Sodano protégée, Archbishop Ivo Scapola, is the papal envoy to Chile today. According to news accounts, he pushed Francis to appoint Barros as bishop of Osorno.

"The [Roman] curia is a brotherhood," Sodano once told The New York Times Magazine.

The dynamics of that brotherhood pervade choices of nuncios and bishops by Vatican officials, and it is assumed that the pope backs the choices for positions that the Congregation for Bishops makes, often in consultation with the Secretariat of State.

"Pope Francis' reform broom has not swept up Cardinal Sodano, who at 87 relishes the Vatican power game," said Gerald Posner, author of God's Bankers, a new history of the Vatican Bank.

"Despite his age and outsider's stance when it comes to Francis' inner circle, Sodano still wields influence with his acolytes, some of whom still have prominent Vatican positions. During Sodano's tenure as nuncio to Chile, he not only was close to the pedophile priest whose abuse Barros is charged with covering up, but he also influenced Ivo Scapolo, the nuncio who reputedly led the effort to get Barros elevated to bishop. When all the dust settles in the Chilean fiasco, Sodano's fingerprints will probably be found somewhere central in the Juan Barros appointment."

Andres Beltramo, Vatican correspondent for Notimex, reported on March 19 that Father Alex Vigueras, Chilean provincial of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts religious order, called on Barros to resign because the appointment "seems to have been a decision carried forward alone by the apostolic nuncio, without the backing of the majority of the Bishops of Chile."

Writing before the near-riot at the cathedral, Vigueras warned that a "small fire" could become "a catastrophe with irreparable losses."

By any objective gauge, Francis' decision to install Bishop Barros in Osorno was a preventable disaster.

Speaking by telephone from Dublin, Marie Collins, another member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told GroundTruth: "I can't speak on behalf of the commission, but from my own personal view, as an abuse survivor, I just don't understand this appointment. It seems completely contrary to what the pope has been saying. I really feel for the survivors in Chile, Juan Carlos and the others. They've been so courageous and it must be very tough for them."

Jason Berry was co-producer of Frontline's "Secrets of the Vatican" and is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, which received the 2011 Best Book Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.