The first head to roll, in the work of rebuilding the Catholic hierarchy of Chile that has been set in motion by Pope Francis, has been the most predictable: that of Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid, removed as bishop of Osorno.
But there is something that does not add up, in this operation and in its backstory.
The photo above is a clue to this. It was taken at the cathedral of Osorno on March 21, 2015, the day of the turbulent entrance into the diocese of Bishop Barros, who was made the target of serious accusations of unfitness but strenuously defended by the pope. And who is next to him, in liturgical vestments and with the act of appointment in his hand, while the protest rages all around? A Jesuit who is not Chilean but Spanish, Germán Arana, a friend and spiritual guide of Barros but above all one of the most intimate confidants of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
When in the middle of last May Francis convened all the Chilean bishops in Rome for three days of “discernment” on the sexual abuse that has come to light in recent years, Barros came too, but from Madrid and together with none other than the Jesuit Arana.
Who had played a decisive role, three or four years before, in the appointment of Barros as bishop of Osorno, according to what was stated with assurance last May on the para-Vatican website “Il Sismografo” by its founder and director, Luis Badilla, a Chilean vaticanista who lives in Rome and a former journalist for Vatican Radio, after the first leaks about the Jesuit’s role had appeared in the Spanish blog “Infovaticana“.
Until a couple of months ago, Arana’s role was entirely unknown not only to the general public but even to specialists on Vatican affairs.
Not even when Francis, last April, confessed that he had “made serious errors in the assessment and perception of the situation, in particular through the lack of reliable and balanced information” did anyone mention Arana in identifying those who had led the pope on.
Instead, the main culprits in having induced Francis to promote Barros to the diocese of Osorno and then to defend his innocence were and still are systematically identified in the cardinals Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa and Ricardo Ezzati Andrello, previous and present archbishop of Santiago, and in the apostolic nuncio in Chile, Ivo Scapolo.
But if one looks back at the winter between 2014 and 2015, when that appointment was made, there is a letter from Pope Francis that contradicts this reconstruction.
The letter – brought to light by Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press in January of this year, in the run-up to Francis’s voyage to Chile – bears the date of January 31, 2015.
At that date, Barros’s appointment as bishop of Osorno was already official, made public by the Holy See the preceding January 10. But the permanent council of the episcopal conference of Chile had written to the pope, asking him to revoke it “in extremis.” And it is to this same permanent council that Francis responds with the letter that is now known to us. In which he rejects their request.
In the letter, Francis relates that at the end of 2014 even the nuncio had gone about urging Barros to decline the appointment and instead withdraw for “a period of sabbatical,” also extending the same request to two other Chilean bishops implicated in the same affair.
And Barros – as we also learn from the pope – in effect wrote a letter of resignation, which Francis however did not accept, on account – he explains – of a flaw present in the letter of resignation itself, in which Barros had included the names of the two other bishops spoken of by the nuncio, names that instead were supposed to remain secret.
Apart from the flimsiness of this justification given by Francis for what he did, from the pope’s letter it therefore emerges in glaring fashion that neither the nuncio nor the permanent council of the Chilean hierarchy – meaning its highest representatives, beginning with the archbishop of Santiago – had championed the promotion of Barros as bishop of Osorno. On the contrary, both of them had gone about opposing it, both before and after its official publication, evidently maintaining that the accusations against him were credible.
But there is more in that letter from Francis of January 31, 2015.
The pope reports that during those same days, Barros was doing “a month of spiritual exercises in Spain.” Now we know where and with whom: in Madrid, and under the guidance of the Jesuit Arana, a former professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and since 2011 the rector of the Spanish seminary of Comillas, besides having – as “Il Sismografo” emphasized – a reputation as “an exceptional former of priests and a great guide in the spiritual exercises.”
Not only that. Even in the last months of 2014 – in the interval between his previous position as military ordinary of Chile and his upcoming one as bishop of Osorno – Barros had spent periods in Madrid, always close to Fr. Arana. And it is thought to have been precisely this latter who convinced Bergoglio of the soundness of the appointment. Luis Badilla, in “Il Sismografo,” has no doubts in discovering a reference to the decisive “consultancy” of Arana in these words spoken by Francis during the return flight from Chile, on January 21, 2018, in strenuous defense of Barros’s innocence, before the about-face a few weeks later under the weight of crushing evidence:
“Now, the case of Bishop Barros. It is a case where I called for an examination, an investigation, which was thorough. Really, there is no evidence of guilt, nor does it appear that there will be any.”
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Fr. Arana should have decided to walk beside Barros during his highly contested entrance into the diocese of Osorno, nor that he should have been close to him in the following years, until his arrival in Rome a month ago and his subsequent inevitable removal.
One uncertainty remains. What will Francis do about this improvident Jesuit adviser of his? Will he keep him in the circle of his most intimate and most trusted confidants? This is not the first incident that has happened to him on account of one of them with no removal afterward. Viganò is a case in point. This circle of his stalwarts is a serious weak point of Francis’s pontificate.
With one extra complication. In the ten pages that Francis conveyed to the Chilean bishops in mid-May as an outline for “discernment,” he scolded those bishops and superiors who entrust “to priests suspected of active homosexuality” seminaries and novitiates, with their associated recruitment. He addressed a similar rebuke a few days later – behind closed doors – to the Italian bishops meeting in Rome for their plenary assembly. “We are full of homosexuals,” he lamented. But then why does Francis not “discern” in the circle of the ecclesiastics closest to him?
As a side note to this story it must be pointed out that among the numerous cases of sexual abuse committed by members of the Chilean clergy that have come to light in recent years there is one that has received very little coverage outside of Chile but is no less serious. And it too involves the Society of Jesus.
It was reported in detail by Edward Pentin in the National Catholic Register:
The epicenter of this other story is the Colegio San Ignacio in Santiago, run by Jesuits and with a decidedly progressive profile, the opposite of the nearby conservative parish of El Bosque, long governed by that Fernando Karadima who is today the emblem of the horrors, after his conviction in 2011 by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, but who for years was an extremely popular educator and guide, in good and in evil, of teeming ranks of young people and priests, some of whom, including Barros, went on to become bishops.
The culprit in this case is the Jesuit Jaime Guzmán Astaburuaga, who committed his misdeeds in the eighties and nineties, sexually abusing numerous young people between the ages of 12 and 17. The Chilean province of the Society of Jesus became aware of this abuse in 2010. And in 2012 it convicted him.
But it was only in January of this year that the provincial of the Chilean Jesuits, Cristián del Campo, made Fr. Guzmán’s conviction public. Prompting the reaction of sixty alumni of the Colegio, who in an open letter labeled as “unjustified” the five years of silence over the conviction, which brought even more suffering to the victims and compromised the necessary work of restoration and prevention.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)