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The pope is defending a bishop accused of witnessing abuse. What do his words mean to survivors?

Pope Francis came under fire during a trip to Chile for defending a bishop accused of directly witnessing and covering up sexual abuse by another church figure, dating back to the 1980s. While the pope apologized for his wording, he stands by the bishop. Lisa Desjardins talks with Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org about what the pontiff’s words mean to victims and other Catholics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pope just concluded a trip to Chile this weekend, aimed at healing some of the after-effects of sexual abuse committed there.

    But his remarks during that trip, and on his return from it, about the role of a bishop in a scandal there have raised questions.

    Lisa Desjardins looks at the pope's pledges to change the church's actions and attitude.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The cases in Chile date back to the 1980s and a well-connected priest found to be a pedophile, the Reverend Fernando Karadima.

    Both the Vatican and a Chilean judge concluded those accusations were credible. The church defrocked him.

    Why this matters now? Karadima was a longtime mentor to a current bishop, Juan Barros Madrid. He is accused of covering up and witnessing the abuse.

    While in Chile to apologize for abuse by other priests, Pope Francis defended this bishop, saying there is not one shred of evidence against him.

    That set off a firestorm. The pope apologized for his wording yesterday, but he also stood by the bishop.

    Anne Barrett Doyle is the co-director of the watchdog group and web site BishopAccountability.org. And she joins me now.

    First, let's talk about this case in Chile. We have one priest, Fernando Karadima, who was found to commit abuse and also to mentor many other priests who are believed to be abusers.

  • Anne Barrett Doyle:


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What exactly, though, are the accusations against this bishop, who I know is one of those who this priest mentored?

  • Anne Barrett Doyle:


    Bishop Barros is said to have at one point, when he was secretary to the Archdiocese of Santiago, he supposedly destroyed a letter that complained about Karadima's behavior many decades ago.

    But, really, the allegations that are far more serious is that the victims of Karadima say that he was in the room when children and young men were being abused by Karadima.

    Juan Carlos Cruz, a well-known victim of Karadima, said that Barros, then a priest, watched him being abused by Karadima.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And these are victims that the church itself accepted as credible when they were looking at Karadima's case.

  • Anne Barrett Doyle:

    That's right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But now it seems the pope is not giving credibility to these accounts.

    I'm wondering, what do the pope's words, someone who I know many Catholic see as a man of healing, what do those words on this trip mean to survivors? How are they taking it?

  • Anne Barrett Doyle:

    I think the words are devastating to survivors and to Catholics who had thought this pope might be cleaning up the church.

    I think that the mask has fallen from Pope Francis. I think that this was a tremendous setback. To have him resort to the oldest trick in the church's playbook, which is to accuse victims of lying, was turning back the clock to the darkest hours of this crisis.

    This is a cruel tactic that the church, we hoped, had discarded. I imagine this is going to have a tremendous chilling effect on victims who were considering coming forward. Why would they do that, when the head of the global church has accused victims of lying?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We reached out to Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley. He is the pope's point person and headed up the commission to protect minors, to look into priest abuse. He wasn't available to come on the show, but he did indicate he understood why the pope's words were seen as painful.

    We do want to look at some of the things that the pope said just in the last day on his plane trip.

    First, he said — quote — "I know how much they suffer to feel that the pope says, bring me a letter, a proof. It's a slap."

    That's the pope recognizing that his initial words were painful when he asked for evidence. But the pope on that same flight also said, "But there is no evidence of abuse," meaning with Bishop Barros.

  • Anne Barrett Doyle:


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    "Covering up an abuse is abuse," he said. "There's no evidence. There isn't."

    What do you make of that contradiction? And, also, is there some room to say the pope is assuming that his bishop is innocent, before pronouncing him guilty?

  • Anne Barrett Doyle:

    Well, I think, certainly, innocent until proven guilty is a concept we all hold dear, and — but this is different.

    This is an aggressive, affirmative declaration that the bishop is innocent, and it's an attack on his accusers. That is biased. That is not a disciplined approach to this case.

    If he were a judge in a civil case, he would be asked to recuse himself, or maybe even, you know, thrown off the bench for remarks like that.

    This is — unfortunately, this defense of brother bishops is very consistent with Pope Francis' record when he was an archbishop in Buenos Aires. And this dismissiveness towards victims and towards Catholics who complain about Barros is consistent with remarks he's made when he's been caught off-script.

    I think that this is a turning point. I think that this is a — you know, a sign that we cannot at all depend upon reform from this pope when it comes to this issue.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We will continue to follow this story, and we will continue to ask Cardinal O'Malley to join us for a response.

    Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, thank you for joining us.

  • Anne Barrett Doyle:

    You're so welcome. Thank you for having me.

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