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Pope Francis and the politics of episcopal accusations

When Pope Francis spoke about Chile’s Bishop Juan Barros in January 2018, the pope probably knew his remarks would be controversial. But he likely did not realize what kind of firestorm they would set off, or how long it would take to repair the damage.

Pope Francis. Credit: Mazur/


The pope was on a pastoral visit to South America, with a stop in Santiago de Chile. A journalist asked him about Barros — a bishop the pope had appointed to the Chilean diocese of Osorno, despite allegations that he enabled, witnessed, and covered up sexual abuse by the notorious predator and Chilean priest Fernando Karadima.

Francis told the journalist that the accusations against Barros were “all calumny,” and lacking proof.

“The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” the pope said. 

His insistence set off protests across Chile. They also prompted a rare rebuke from a cardinal: Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley said the pope’s words had caused pain for abuse survivors. 

Francis doubled down on his insistence that Barros was innocent, before it came out that an abuse victim had written to the pope years earlier about Barros, but that the pope might not have seen the letter. 

Eventually, the pope sent an investigative team to Chile, and said he had made a mistake “in the assessment and my perception of the situation.” Barros resigned, at the same time the rest of Chile’s bishops offered their resignations, and several were accepted.

The story is well-known. But an interesting aspect of the affair is the way politics played into things.

Before everything blew up, the pope had insisted that charges against Barros were political — that they were cooked up by “leftists.”

“Don’t be led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this,” Pope Francis warned Chileans concerned about the affair in 2015.

The Church in Osorno “has let its head be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof.”

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In 2015, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Oran, Argentina, was accused of possessing pornography on his phone, including pictures of “young people” and sexually explicit photographs of himself. 

Francis knew Zanchetta well — he had appointed him to Oran in 2013 shortly after becoming pope. The two worked together when Francis was president of the Argentine bishops’ conference and Zanchetta was its administrative and executive head.

The pope summoned Zanchetta to the Vatican, and accepted an explanation involving politics: That the bishop’s phone had been hacked, and that the conservative, allegedly “anti-Francis” priests of Oran had been spreading rumors about him. 

The pope accepted that answer, and sent Zanchetta back to his diocese. When continued allegations of both sexual and financial misconduct plagued the bishop in Argentina, the pope accepted his resignation in 2017, and created a job for him in the Vatican. Even while an Argentine criminal financial investigation mounted, Zanchetta worked at the Vatican’s central bank.

He left that job in June, and it was announced in early August that he will face an Argentine trial for criminal sexual abuse allegations.

Bishop Tome Ferreira da Silva of Brazil’s Diocese of São José do Rio Preto resigned from his office Wednesday, after a sex tape featuring the bishop engaged in a solitary act, and filmed by him on his cell phone, circulated on Brazilian social media.

But Ferreira had been investigated before, for allegations of both personal sexual misconduct and inaction in the face of priestly misconduct. When he was investigated in 2017, the bishop reportedly claimed the charges against him were political — that conservative priests had defamed him, and attached his name spuriously to a scandal in which he had not been negligent.

In each of those cases, the excuse that politics were at the root of false sexual accusations was effective: Each bishop who offered it found that it bought him some more time, or kept him in office. Of course, the excuse in each case was eventually proven unlikely, and the alleged moral, canonical, and legal failures of each man eventually caught up to him. 

But the cases raise a question: Has the Church, and even Pope Francis, yet decided that casting blame upon political enemies is too convenient an excuse to stand as a get-out-of-jail free card?  Do allegations of serious sexual and administrative and administrative misconduct demand a better answer? 

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Of course, Pope Francis is not the first Church leader to accept that kind of defense. 

Pope St. John Paul II was said to be long-suspicious that reports against priests were concocted to discredit them, because of his experiences in Communist Poland. That suspicion is often said to account for his failure to deal with allegations against notorious abuser Fr. Marciel Maciel. 

And the Vatican’s report on the disgraced Theodore McCarrick gives several examples in which the former cardinal attributes slyly the allegations against him to enemies or critics in the Church.

It is perhaps easier, in a Church which has real political enemies, and in which clerical politics are often played fiercely at high levels, to believe that a leadership figure has been the victim of a smear campaign, than it is to believe that a respected figure is living a double life. But the experiences of recent years suggests that mentality can often enable deception to continue.

It is possible that Pope Francis anticipated that fact in the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, his 2019 norms on investigating bishops accused of malfeasance. Aiming at objectivity, the pope urged the use of third-party investigators, under the direction of metropolitan archbishops, to make measured, fact-based reviews of evidence, in order to suss out the veracity of abuse or negligence claims apart from excuses about politics and vendettas.

It is possible that the cases of Zanchetta, Barros, and Ferreira are lingering cases from a different era with a now-unacceptable approach — that under the aegis of Vos estis lux mundi, conspiracy theories about frame jobs and phone hacks won’t cut the mustard. It is possible the Church has entered into a new era of accountability, and investigations that seem in retrospect to have ended without satisfaction are firmly in the past, even if they are only emerging, and being addressed, now.

Ultimately, Ferreira couldn’t hide behind excuses when videotape of his self-gratifying act popped up on social media. The proof was there for all to see. But whether the era of Vos estis means that the standards of proof have really changed — and excusing bad behavior with political boogeymen is a thing of the past — remains to be seen.  

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