Members of Vatican abuse commission question Francis' inaction in Chile

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Two members of the new Vatican commission advising Pope Francis on clergy sexual abuse have said they are both concerned and surprised at the pontiff's decision to appoint a bishop in Chile who is accused of covering up abuse, and even witnessing it, while he was a priest.

Speaking in brief NCR interviews Thursday in personal capacities, the commission members also said that some in their group are considering traveling to Rome to try to speak to the pope face-to-face on the matter.

"I am only speaking for myself but as a working sub-group of the Commission we are all very disturbed by what is going on in Chile," said Peter Saunders, one of the commission members who is also a survivor of abuse.

Referring to different sub-groups of the commission working on recommendations for Francis on the church's abuse measures, Saunders said he is part of a commission working group of survivors who together are considering the trip to Rome.

"I am gravely concerned about this issue," said Saunders, who is also the founder of the U.K.-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood. "One or two of us on our survivor working party are suggesting we go to Rome to speak with Francis or at least Cardinal O'Malley."

Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley leads the Vatican abuse commission and is also a member of the pope's advisory Council of Cardinals.

Saunders was speaking in an email about Chilean Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who was installed in his role Saturday as head of the church in the diocese of Osorno, Chile amid protests in the cathedral.

Appointed to the role by Francis in January, Barros is accused by Chilean survivors of covering up abuse by Fr. Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexually abusing minors. The survivors say that as a priest Barros not only worked to cover up Karadima's crimes, but even witnessed some of them as they happened.

The bishop, who previously served as the head of Chile's diocese for the military, has denied the claims, saying in a statement he "never had knowledge or imagined the serious abuses that this priest [Fernando Karadima] committed with his victim."

Marie Collins, another member of the Vatican sexual abuse commission who is also a survivor, called on Thursday in a phone interview for Francis to remove Barros.

"As a survivor, I'm very surprised at the appointment in Chile because it seems to go against … what the Holy Father has been saying about not wanting anyone in positions of trust in the church who don't have an absolutely 100 percent record of child protection," said Collins, an Irishwoman.

"I don't know what investigations were done on behalf of the church, but I do know that in investigations of [Karadima], survivors did make those investigating aware of Barros' presence," said Collins.

"[Barros] is not accused of abuse himself in anyway," she continued. "He may have been aware of it and did nothing. And that's enough."

Asked about what recommendations the Vatican commission is considering making to Francis about bishops who cover up abuse, Collins said she thought accountability for bishops was a separate issue than Barros' situation, as he was not a bishop during the time he is alleged to have covered up Karadima's crimes.

"It doesn't appear that he has behaved in any way inappropriately as a bishop," she said. "It's just whether with all the concern around him he's an appropriate person to be appointed."

"I think it's a slightly different issue, but it's just as concerning," Collins continued. "It's the fact that the church would have known about this. I can't understand just how it's gone ahead."

"If he has been able to prove that he wasn't present at any time of any of this, if he's able to prove that, then obviously there's no case for him to answer," said the Irishwoman. "But I don't know that he's done that. It would seem a number of the survivors have all said the same thing. It's not just one person accusing him."

Collins said she thought Francis was "very sincere" about child protection.

"This seems to be contrary to what he has said," she continued. "I'd just like to understand it better and to know why the concerns around Bishop Barros seem to have not been addressed."

Saunders and Collins are two of 17 members of the Vatican abuse commission, which was announced by the Vatican in December 2013 but met for the first time with all of its members in Rome in February.

Collins said the next in-person meeting of the group is likely to be held in October.

During a press conference in February, the commission said it is focusing on making recommendations to Francis in about ten areas, including accountability for bishops who cover up abuse and examining the guidelines on sexual abuse from each of the world's bishops' conferences.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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