Cardinal O’Malley corrects the Pope on his comments in Chile

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Pope Francis meets with Bishops at the Sacristy of the Cathedral of Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Luca Zennaro/Pool via AP)

For those, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who have been concerned that Pope Francis has not dealt adequately with the scourge of clergy sex abuse, his trip to Chile last week seemed like the perfect opportunity to do the right thing. Unfortunately, he did the opposite.

Next door to the pope’s native Argentina, Chile has been roiled for years by a series of abuse cases, most notoriously that of Rev. Fernando Karadima, a charismatic priest whom the Vatican defrocked in 2011 for abusing teenagers during the 1980s and 1990s. The ongoing issue, as in so many of these cases, has been the Vatican’s failure to discipline those who covered up the abuse.

In the Karadima case, the focus has been on Juan Barros Madrid, whom Francis made bishop of the southern Chilean city of Osorno in 2015. Victims have accused Barros of knowing about, and even witnessing, Karadima’s abusive behavior. Here was Francis’ chance to deal with the situation personally.

He got off to a good start. In an address in Santiago on Tuesday, he said  he was “pained and ashamed” over the “irreparable damage” priests had inflicted on minors, and asked Chileans “for forgiveness and to support victims with as much strength as possible, even as we take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”

But then he went and celebrated mass alongside Barros.

He met privately and cried with six victims of sexual abuse by priests.

But then, when asked by a reporter about the Karadima case, he replied with asperity, “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

It would be an understatement to say that this caused consternation, and not only in Chile. An editorial in the New York Times, “The Pope Causes More Pain for Priests’ Victims,” questioned the Church’s commitment to ending the abuse and cover-up.

Strikingly, and impressively, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who heads the Pope’s special commission on the protection of minors, felt called upon to issue his own criticism:

It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message “if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed” abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.

To be sure, O’Malley, who has had more experience cleaning up abuse cases than any prelate on the planet, declined to comment directly on the situation in Chile.

“Not having been personally involved in the cases that were the subject of yesterday’s interview I cannot address why the Holy Father chose the particular words he used at that time,” he said. “What I do know, however, is that Pope Francis fully recognizes the egregious failures of the Church and its clergy who abused children and the devastating impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones.”

Pace His Eminence, but if Pope Francis really did fully recognize the Church’s egregious failures, he would know that, as horrendous as the abuse has been, the most egregious failure has been on the part of those who covered it up and enabled it to go on and on.

The accusations against Barros in the Karadima case were sufficiently credible for Francis to consider having him and two other bishops take a sabbatical year as penance three years ago. It is close to incomprehensible that he would now dismiss them as calumny.

Over the weekend, he was joined during his visit to Peru by O’Malley. Is it too much to hope that the Cardinal took the occasion to straighten his boss out?

Update: On his flight back from Peru, Francis walks back what he said…up to a point.