A protest banner that says in Spanish, "Yes, Francis, here there is proof," hangs near the cathedral in Lima, Peru, Jan. 21. The banner protests Pope Francis' defense of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile, who is accused of protecting a priest the Vatican found guilty of sexual abuse of minors. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: Sex file bungled

  • February 16, 2018

Few dossiers that cross the Pope’s desk are more challenging than the thick, sad file on sexual abuse. It’s a file Pope Francis inherited from his two predecessors and one he pledged to handle with urgency, compassion and transparency.

Thus many people were dismayed when, during a January trip to Chile and Peru, the Pope caused an uproar when he not only waved off allegations against a bishop implicated in a coverup but also demanded that victims of abuse bring him proof of wrongdoing. Chileans were stunned. The Pope subsequently retreated, admitting his intemperate remarks were “a slap in the face” to victims, but he remained adamant that there was not “one piece of evidence” against the bishop.

“No one has come forward, they haven’t provided any evidence for a judgment,” Pope Francis said. “You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward.”

It turns out, however, an alleged victim did come forward and a piece of evidence does exist in the form of an eight-page letter sent to Pope Francis in 2015. It claims that before becoming a bishop, Fr. Juan Barros witnessed the victim, then a minor, being abused by another priest. The letter was delivered to the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Minors and given to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the commission president, to be forwarded to the Pope. The letter writer subsequently was told that the Pope received it.

These details were revealed in a detailed story by the Associated Press. It remains unclear if the Pope actually received and read the letter. Or perhaps he read it, gave it to subordinates to follow up and assumed appropriate actions were taken. But in the days following the disclosures, neither O’Malley nor the Pope, through the Vatican press office, were talking. It was an unhelpful silence.

Six days before the letter became public, the Pope assigned Malta Archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate the Barros affair. His investigation will include a meeting with the alleged victim. That’scertainly appropriate but, regardless of the archbishop’s findings, this episode is going to leave a bad taste.

Although it’s unclear when the Pope became aware of the matter, his closest advisors on clerical sex-abuse apparently have had a written testimony from an alleged victim since at least spring 2015. Since then the Pope has spoken frequently about a duty to rid the Church of this scourge and to enforce zero tolerance of  abuse and those who cover it up. So to learn the Vatican is just now, three years later, investigating Barros is disheartening.

It seems two investigations are warranted. One into the Barros allegations and another into why the Vatican continues to mismanage the file on the sexual abuse of minors.

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