Vatican sex abuse envoy returns with more than he expected

SANTIAGO, Chile — The Vatican’s leading expert on clerical sex abuse wrapped up his fact-finding mission to Chile on Thursday and headed to Rome to brief the pope, concluding one of the most extraordinary months in the Catholic Church’s long-running saga of coming to terms with priests who rape children and the church hierarchy that protects them.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna plans to present not only a report about Bishop Juan Barros, who is accused by victims of witnessing their abuse and ignoring it. Scicluna is also bringing back testimony from Chilean victims of other abusers in the Marist Brothers, Salesian and Franciscan religious orders and how their accusations were mishandled, confirmation that the Chilean Catholic Church has a very big problem on its hands, and to date hasn’t handled it very well.

“In those situations that seem pertinent, Monsignor Scicluna will provide the respective background to the Holy See,” said the spokesman for the Chilean bishops’ conference, Jaime Coiro.

Expectations in Chile are high that something has to change, and that the problem isn’t just about Barros and Francis’ 2015 decision to appoint him as bishop of Osorno, Chile over the objections of many Chilean bishops. Barros had been a top lieutenant to Chile’s most prominent predator priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, but he denies victims’ accusations that he witnessed and ignored their abuse.

Victims say the Barros affair is emblematic of a culture in the Chilean church to coverup for abusers, give them minimal sanctions or move them around rather than adopt the “one-strike-and-you’re-out” policy adopted by U.S. bishops after the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002.

There are five Chilean dioceses that need new bishops, including Santiago, where the archbishop, Cardinal Riccardo Ezzati, turned 76 in January and is due to retire. That sets the stage for the potential that a new course could be charted in Chile if Francis chooses to take it.

“This isn’t just about Bishop Barros. This is much bigger,” historian and author Marcial Sanchez said.

Pope Francis dispatched Scicluna and a Vatican expert on abuse in the region, the Rev. Jordi Bertomeu, to Chile on Jan. 30 following Francis’ problematic visit to Chile and even more problematic press conference coming home. Francis had strongly defended Barros, pronounced himself “certain” that Barros was innocent of coverup and repeatedly said that accusations against him were “calumny.”

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