TRUJILLO, Peru (Reuters) - A key U.S. cardinal distanced himself on Saturday from comments by Pope Francis on sexual abuse, saying they had caused “great pain,” a remarkable move pointing to divisions in the Roman Catholic Church over how to treat accusers.
The implicit public rebuke of the pope by one of his top advisers came after two days of pointed attacks from victims and their advocates, and was another setback for Francis’ attempts to come to grips with sexual abuse in the Church.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said in an unusually blunt statement that “it is understandable” that the pope’s comments in Chile on Thursday were “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator.”
In response to a question from a reporter on accusations against Juan Barros, a Chilean bishop appointed by the pope in 2015 who is accused of protecting a pedophile, the pope said:
“The day I see proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk. There is not a single piece of evidence against him. It is all slander. Is that clear?”
The pope’s comments appearing to dismiss the credibility of accusers was widely criticized by victims, their advocates and newspaper editorials in Chile and the pope’s native Argentina.
Barros has been accused of protecting his former mentor, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty in a Vatican investigation in 2011 of abusing teenage boys over many years. Karadima denies the allegations, and Barros said he was unaware of any wrongdoing. The Barros-Karadima case has riveted Chile for years.
O’Malley’s statement on the pope’s choice of language said: “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.”
The statement was even more remarkable because O’Malley headed a papal commission advising the pontiff on how to root out sexual abuse in the Church. The commission’s three-year term ended last month, and its future is not clear.
O’Malley said he could not “address why the Holy Father chose the particular words he used at that time” but said the pope “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.”
While the pope has vowed “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse, his efforts have sputtered.
A plan to open a tribunal in the Vatican to judge bishops accused of covering up sexual abuse or mishandling cases never saw the light of day.
The much-touted commission headed by O’Malley was hit by two high-profile defections of lay members who had been victims of abuse.
Marie Collins of Ireland, a nonclerical member who was a victim of priestly abuse when she was a child, quit in frustration last year, citing a “shameful” lack of cooperation within the Vatican. Another, Peter Saunders of Britain, also quit over lack of progress.
To many, the pope’s comments in Chile undermined his public admission on Tuesday of “pain and shame” for the rape and molestation of children by priests and a meeting with victims.
Even Chile’s famously conservative print media criticized the pope’s comments.
A column by a papal biographer, Sergio Rubin, in Clarin, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the pope’s home country of Argentina, proclaimed the Chile trip his worst overseas visit in the nearly five years since his election.
Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesman for anti-Barros Catholics in Osorno in south-central Chile, where Barros remains bishop, said on Saturday he was worried the pope’s words will discourage more victims from speaking out.
“What incentive will victims have to come forward when even if the courts and the Vatican have said they are right, in the end the pope says they are pure lies?” he said in an telephone interview.
“It does not do any good for the pope to come to Chile and speak of poverty and the environment if in the end he does not confront the only thing the Chilean community cares about.”
Analysts said brushing off the complaints over Barros for the second time - the pope had already called Osorno parishioners “dumb” in 2015 - sets a poor precedent for confronting cases of abuse in the developing world.
Boston-based research group BishopAccountability.org has compiled a database listing nearly 70 Chilean priests, deacons, religious brothers and a nun who have been accused of molesting children.
Peru, the second stop on the pope’s trip, has also been hit by sexual abuse scandals.
Last week, the pope ordered the takeover of an elite Catholic society whose founder is scheduled to go on trial in Peru this year for sexual abuse of minors.
Reporting by Caroline Stauffer in Lima; Additional reporting by Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis