“They Have No Intention of Changing”: An Interview with Sex Abuse Expert on Pope’s Fierce Defense of Accused Bishop

Pope Francis, lauded by liberals for his sharp critiques of free market fundamentalism and environmental neglect, made headlines Thursday for his defense of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, widely reviled in Chile for his role in a sexual abuse scandal involving a priest named Fernando Karadima.

Karadima, who has been sentenced to “a life of prayer and penitence,” wasn’t investigated by the Vatican until 20 years after the first credible accusations had been leveled. It’s stories like this one, repeated across decades and continents, that have necessitated Pope Francis’ efforts to repair the Church’s reputation with Catholics of all generations.

Shortly after the initial accusation in 1984 (via a letter to the archbishop by a group of parishioners, which was later “torn up”), a young priest named Juan Barros Madrid became the archbishop’s secretary. In addition to the testimony of several of Karadima’s abuse survivors, Barros’ longstanding friendship and intimate working relationship with Karadima has led to credible accusations that Barros was at the very least aware of Karadima’s crimes.

As Fr. Peter Kleigel told NCR’s Austen Ivereigh back in 2015 “In 35 years of a close relationship, he simply cannot say he knew nothing… He still defends Karadima and has never asked forgiveness.”

RD emailed Joelle Casteix, a writer, speaker and expert on child sex abuse and cover-ups,  to learn more about the case and the state of the pope’s efforts to both fix the Church’s problem and its reputation.


Pope Francis claims that “there was not a shred of evidence” that Bishop Juan Barros Madrid was complicit in the crimes of his mentor Rev. Fernando Karadima, and that “it is all slander.” Is that the case?

No. First of all, we have Karadima’s victims who say Barros was there, Barros knew, and Barros covered up abuse. But Francis refuses to talk to them. Then we have the church’s own files—both in Chile and the Vatican. But we don’t know what is in those files because the church won’t turn them over to civil authorities. In fact, the church may be sitting on all kinds of proof, but they won’t share it, because they don’t have to.

Responding to the pope’s comments Juan Carlos Cruz tweeted (in spanish) “As if I could have taken a selfie or picture while Karadima abused me or others and Juan Barros stood there watching it all.” Given that material evidence is rare in cases of sexual abuse how should the pope approach allegations? Is there cause for him to be skeptical? Have there been numerous cases of demonstrably false accusations?

Material evidence is not rare in the cases. The church is very good at record keeping. Victims don’t take selfies. But the church knows and records everything. I have been working with victims for 15 years. In the vast majority of cases, there is a church file. In fact, if you look up “canon 489” you will see that the church has a rule that bishops are supposed to keep a secret (or sub-secreto) file in these cases of sexual crimes. The evidence is there, but the church will not turn it over. If the Vatican found Karadima guilty, Barros’ involvement (what he knew and when he knew it) is in those files.

While the pope’s visit to Chile was ostensibly intended to “help heal the wounds of a sex abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic Church its credibility in the country,” he refused to meet with Karadima’s victims, though he did meet with victims of other priests in Santiago. Do you think this was a calculated decision? 

Yes. Pope met with victims who were vetted. Probably people who were very faithful Catholics and employees of the church. Juan Carlos [Cruz] wanted answers. He wasn’t gonna pray. He wanted truth and accountability. Pope Francis—obviously—was not going to give it to him.

Pope Francis has shown himself to be a smart and media-savvy public figure. But given that he was well aware of the long standing and vehement opposition to Barros from Chile’s Catholic community—which he called “dumb” for opposing Barros’ appointment back in 2015—why would he believe that this visit might help heal these wounds? Is this a misstep or a maybe a signal to some other interests within the Catholic world?

I think this is a huge misstep. There is been a big information disconnect between Latin America and the US because of the language barrier. We didn’t know what was going on there. Within the past two years—I believe—that barrier has been crossed by the story and activism of Juan Carlos Cruz and the sheer callousness of Pope Francis. In the US and Europe, all we saw was this media savvy “Social Justice Pope” who wanted to change the world for the better. But Juan Carlos has been able to expose the ugly underbelly of truth. He’s a hero.

Last month, Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor who was critical of the Barros appointment, became the second member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to step down in 2017 alone. Where do you think the pope’s and the Church’s efforts on dealing with sexual abuse stand, and what do you see happening in the near future?

There is a long and storied history of survivors stepping down from these panels (I stepped down from the Diocese of Orange Lay Review Board in 2002). Survivors have stepped down in dioceses across the country, the National Review Board, and now the Pope’s own commission. Nothing is going to change. They have no intention of changing. It’s all window dressing. It’s up to Catholics to speak with their wallets if they want to take back their church and for survivors to change the law in order to get justice and accountability.