Argentine-born Pope Francis knows it’s not enough to be the first Latin American pontiff. He also has to make that mean something.
So far he has. He’s condemned the region’s still epic inequality, he's tried to mediate the unholy mess in Venezuela – and most famously he's brokered a rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba that could thaw a century of bitter mistrust between Washington and Latin America.
Francis, in fact, announced last week that in September he’ll visit Cuba, where polls show he’s much more beloved than the Castros – and where, as my colleague Andres Oppenheimer points out, he has a unique opportunity to persuade them to improve human rights.
All good stuff, Your Holiness. So forgive us if we can’t figure out why you would risk all that New World goodwill by stubbornly endorsing a bishop in Chile who, according to victims, shielded a pedophile priest.
Francis apparently won’t budge on the issue of Juan Barros, whom the Vatican recently appointed bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Osorno in southern Chile. (Fittingly enough, that’s close to where a volcano is erupting now.) This despite the serious accusations Barros faces that he ignored the serial child molestation committed by his old mentor, the Rev. Fernando Karadima.
Even the Vatican has determined Karadima is guilty and has sent him to a Chilean convent to live out his life in “penitence,” even though he belongs in a penitentiary. What's more, at least two of the men Karadima abused when they were boys have declared Barros was present when some of the assaults occurred and did nothing to stop them.
Barros denies he was aware of the abuse. But everyone else in Chile reasons, understandably, that if the victims’ accounts were credible enough to prove Karadima’s crime, they’re a pretty reliable report of Barros’ cover-up.
Which is why Barros’ installation as bishop last month was met with boos instead of blessings, including protests inside the cathedral. Chile is still a devoutly Catholic country, but parishioners, congressmen and even a large number of Osorno’s priests boycotted the ceremony.
And they’re not letting up. Whenever Barros makes a public appearance now, he’s greeted by demonstrators calling for his resignation.
Members of Francis’ own sex abuse advisory commission, which includes abuse victims, traveled to Rome this month to advise Francis just how bad the Vatican’s defense of this Chilean prelate looks. This won’t, they no doubt warned him, do much to help the church salvage what moral credibility it's got left after years and years of revelations of priestly pedophilia and bishops’ schemes to hide it.
The Chilean controversy, in fact, looks all the worse now that a U.S. prelate convicted of abuse cover-up finally resigned last week. Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn pleaded guilty in 2012 to a misdemeanor charge of failing to report clerical sexual abuse. Even then he refused to give up his miter – but in the end even the Vatican realized his tenure as a bishop was untenable.
So why are Francis and the Vatican absolving Barros? As you’d expect, the reasons are far more political than theological.
Global outrage has finally forced Rome to start cracking down on pedophile priests. But priests are just the church hierarchy’s plebs. Bishops and cardinals are its patricians. Flogging them risks admitting there’s something systemically rotten about the institution – and that’s a mea culpa Rome isn’t about to utter.
Especially not in Latin America, where the church continues to hemorrhage followers to its Protestant rivals. The cardinals elected the first Latin American pope in large part hoping to halt that migration.
So Barros isn’t likely to be pushed out – and certainly not before Francis makes his scheduled visit to South America in July.
But the growing anger in Chile suggests the Vatican is miscalculating – badly. Even in pious pockets like Chile, Latin American Catholics by now know what U.S. and European Catholics know: The abuse itself was horrible, but concealing the plague made it so much more horrible.
In that regard, allowing Barros’ appointment in the first place was a surprisingly insensitive decision for a pope who says he wants to reconnect Rome to the laity. Sticking with that decision now is just as tone-deaf – and smacks of the same overweening clericalism that’s driving so many Latin Americans out of Catholicism.
It hardly helped when Barros arrived at a meeting with parishioners this month accompanied by security guards and police dogs. It made him seem more like a carabinero than a cleric – and to Chileans, it must have made Francis seem like one of his rigid Old World predecessors.
Surely, being the first Latin American pope means more than that.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.