Scandal, Loss of Confidence Contribute to a Heavy Spirit as 2018 Ends


National Catholic Register, 31 December 2018

It is unlikely that Pope Francis will publicly describe 2018 as an annus horribilis, as Queen Elizabeth II did in 1992, when a year of scandals in the royal family was crowned by a terrible fire at Windsor Castle.

Scandals there have been aplenty in the Church, but thus far no fire at the Vatican.

The Catholic Church ends 2018 with a heavy spirit. It is not the series of scandals alone, but the loss of confidence in the traditional solution in times of crisis, namely recourse to Rome, as adequate to the task.

The year began with the most catastrophic papal trip in history. The aftermath of the disaster in Chile tainted everything that followed and seriously weakened the capacity of Pope Francis to take effective action.

The papal trip to Chile in January had to deal with the “Barros affair,” the decision in January 2015 of Pope Francis to transfer Bishop Juan Barros from the military diocese to that of Osorno.

The appointment was met with widespread opposition — including physical disruption of the installation ceremony — because Bishop Barros was widely believed to have covered up sexual abuse by his mentor, Chile’s most notorious priest-predator, Father Fernando Karadima. (Karadima was subject to canonical penalties in 2010 and laicized in 2018.) From 2015 onward, the Holy Father rejected the objections to Bishop Barros in increasingly intemperate language, accusing critics of being “stupid” and politically manipulated.

The plan was to definitively slap down the Barros criticism once and for all in Chile. The papal biographer Austen Ivereigh was on hand in Santiago as the Pope arrived and spent the day with both Bishop Barros and another “Karadima” bishop.

A story explained why Pope Francis was courageously standing by an innocent man in the face of a mob screaming for a scapegoat.

“Francis’ dogged determination to support Barros against this tide from both Church and society must be counted as one of the boldest — or, perhaps, foolhardiest — decisions of his pontificate,” wrote Ivereigh.

It was soon revealed to be more than foolhardy. It was dishonest.

On the eve of the trip, leaked letters revealed that the leading bishops of Chile had begged Pope Francis not to transfer Bishop Barros. The Pope had even agreed that it would be better if Bishop Barros and the other “Karadima bishops” resigned. Bishop Barros himself offered to resign twice. Yet, in the end, the Holy Father made the appointment and then accused his critics of “calumny,” even when they were making the same objections which he had privately received from the bishops of Chile.

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