Protests at bishop’s ordination over allegations of church sex abuse cover-up

Eamonn McCann: ‘Ushers were needed to protect Bishop Juan Barros from jostling by the angry congregation’

‘Protesters accused Bishop Barros of having thwarted investigations into the actions of Fr Fernando Karadima, one of the best-known and most respected priests in Chile until a spate of serious allegations emerged against him about 10 years ago.’ Above, Msgr Juan Barros Madrid is escorted after being attacked by demonstrators during his appointment as Bishop of Osorno, at Cathedral of Osorno, Chile. Photograph:  EPA/FELIPE TRUEBA

‘Protesters accused Bishop Barros of having thwarted investigations into the actions of Fr Fernando Karadima, one of the best-known and most respected priests in Chile until a spate of serious allegations emerged against him about 10 years ago.’ Above, Msgr Juan Barros Madrid is escorted after being attacked by demonstrators during his appointment as Bishop of Osorno, at Cathedral of Osorno, Chile. Photograph: EPA/FELIPE TRUEBA

 

Hundreds of Chilean Catholics all dressed in black packed into a church in Osorno last weekend, shouting, singing protest hymns and waving white handkerchiefs as a gesture of disdain, demanding cancellation of the ordination of a bishop accused of having covered up child sex abuse.

One of the underlying reasons for the outburst had to do with a controversy over abortion which has been dominating the news in Chile.

On Saturday, ushers were needed to protect Bishop Juan Barros from jostling by the angry congregation as he made his way back along the central aisle following the ceremony. Outside, police succeeded in manhandling him safely to his car.

The protesters accused Bishop Barros of having thwarted investigations into Fr Fernando Karadima, one of the best-known and most respected priests in Chile until serious allegations emerged against him 10 years ago.

In February 2011, the Vatican found Karadima, then 81, guilty of a litany of sins against children and ordered him to spend the remainder of his days in “penitence and prayer” in a monastery in Santiago.

The following month, a court dismissed criminal charges based on the same evidence, holding the prosecution had run out of time.

Karadima had served for many years in a seminary and had acted as a mentor to many younger priests, including Barros.

Some victims now accuse Barros of protecting Karadima during his career as an abuser and afterwards. One, Juan Carlos Cruz, has claimed he saw Barros tearing up letters sent by victims to the Chilean church authorities describing experiences at the hands of Karadima.

Letter to Vatican

Fr Alex Vigueras, provincial superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, told journalists the appointment “has left us perplexed . . . His naming is not in accordance with the zero tolerance that the church wants to install.”

Writers in Catholic newspapers have been sharply critical of Pope Francis for failing to intervene to prevent the appointment.

Polls show a large majority of Chileans strongly hostile to the way the church has handled the affair. This, many in the church fear, may have subtracted from its moral authority in striving to combat a proposed law on abortion.

On Tuesday of last week, a draft law was introduced in congress which would permit abortion in three circumstances: when the pregnancy has arisen from rape; where the woman’s life is at risk; and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

The measure was among election pledges made by president Michelle Bachelet in 2013.

Abortion legislation

Chilean law now sets down that a “right to life” begins at conception. Chile remains one of six Latin American countries with no-exception bans. (The others are El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.) Women in Chile who seek abortions risk imprisonment.

However, the balance of opinion appears to have shifted significantly in recent years. A poll last month suggested 71 per cent for Bachelet’s proposal, with 19 per cent supporting abortion when this is the woman’s choice.

Pro-choice activists seem serene. Monica Arango, Latin America director of the Centre for Reproductive Rights, professes herself “positive” the (extremely limited, if truth be told) measure will go through congress.

The biggest Chilean pro-life group, Project Hope, on the other hand, maintains, “The whole project is just a charade to legalise all forms of abortion.”

The Chilean bishops have called on the laity to take the lead in trying to turn the tide of opinion towards the pro-life side. Cynics might ascribe their reticence to a realisation that the continuing spate of sex abuse cases “of which the Karadima/Barros imbroglio is merely the most prominent” has robbed them of any capacity for moral leadership. Thus, on television and in newspapers, the anti-choice argument is increasingly put not by direct representatives of the church but by spokespersons for conservative lay organisations.

The child abuse issue touches on the credibility of the church in relation to abortion. There is much in Chile Irish people will recognise. Contrary to the way it sometimes feels, we are not alone.

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