President Harry S. Truman promised that ‘the buck stops here’. Well, last Friday afternoon Rome time, the Chilean bishops—all thirty-four of them—decided to stop the buck-passing and ‘face the music’, that is confront the consequences of their pretty-much complete failure to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. They all offered to resign. What are the implications for the Australian bishops?
Accurate religious statistics are hard to ascertain, but of Chile’s seventeen million people, about 55%-60% are Catholic, 16% Protestant/Evangelical, and about 25% non-believers. In the seventies and eighties, the Chilean church was a model of renewal along Vatican II lines, with a healthy admixture of liberation theology, pastoral care and decent episcopal leadership.
Although a well-established democracy, the country suffered a military coup led by army commander Augusto Pinochet in September 1973, with the active support of the CIA.
The church, led by Cardinal Raul Silva, archbishop of Santiago (1961-1983), was a bastion of human rights opposition to the Junta by supporting victims of the DINA (secret police) and searching for the missing. Silva’s successor, Cardinal Juan Fresno, maintained this policy and facilitated the talks that led eventually to elections and the fall of Pinochet in 1990. Chilean Catholicism stood in stark contrast to the Argentinian church where bishops accepted or actively supported a vicious Junta from 1976 to 1982.
But a powerful force was at work to subvert the Chilean church along reactionary lines. Reshaping the episcopate was one Angelo Sodano, papal nuncio from 1977-1988. Sodano advocated the ‘national security state’ concept, supporting military dictatorships continent-wide and was personally close to Pinochet. He discouraged criticism of government and made sure only conformist conservatives were appointed bishops. Appointed papal Secretary of State in 1988, Sodano still influenced bishops’ appointments in Chile and slowly the episcopate was transmuted into a clericalist enclave.
One of the most influential figures in this reactionary church was the priest Fernando Karadima, pastor of El Bosque, a wealthy Santiago suburb and home to many associated with the Pinochet regime. Karadima’s personality cult influenced many young men, with four of them becoming priests and then bishops. But he was also a chronic abuser of male youths and boys.
Karadima’s sexual abuse was well known to the hierarchy, particularly to Santiago Cardinal Francesco Errázuriz and his successor Ricardo Ezzati. But Errázuriz and Ezzati dug-in and it was the Chilean secular media that eventually forced a Vatican investigation, leading to Karadima being ordered in 2011 into a ‘secluded life of prayer and penance.’ A statute of limitations prevented a civil prosecution.
After Pope Francis made the worst mistake of his papacy by ordering the 2015 transfer of one of Karadima’s bishop-disciples, Juan Barros Madrid, to the southern diocese of Osorno against the wishes of local priests and people, the whole affair blew-up. After vigorously and foolishly defending Barros during his tense January 2018 visit to Chile, Francis sent respected abuse investigator, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna to Chile.
The archbishop’s detailed report showed that the pope had made a grave error of judgment regarding Barros and that the Karadima affair was the tip of the abuse iceberg. It led to a genuine apology by Francis to victims and particularly to the three men who had pursued the Karadima issue with Errázuriz and Ezzati.
While these and other Chilean bishops must go, it shouldn’t be forgotten that a pastoral, social justice-oriented church was subverted by Sodano appointing a bevy of bishops whose horizons were intra-mural, clericalist and defensive. Compared by Jason Berry to Henry Kissinger, Sodano was ‘a practitioner of realpolitik,’ with no pastoral sense whatsoever.
This brings us to Australia.
Here the Royal Commission has produced overwhelming evidence of a systematic cover-up by church leaders of criminal child abuse. So why haven’t the Australian bishops offered their resignations en masse?
Well, first they haven’t embarrassed Francis by feeding him bad advice. Second, he has little affinity with the anglophone world. Francis tends to deal with what’s immediately in front of him and Australia is far away. So, the local bishops feel no papal pressure and keep a low profile.
Third, people claim resignation ‘isn’t the Catholic way’ because bishops are fathers and you can’t resign fatherhood. Nonsense! They failed as fathers when they did nothing about child abuse in their dioceses. And according to Saint Paul in the church ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). In other words: we’re equal. ‘We have one father, who is in heaven’ (Matthew 23:9). And let’s be real here: no mature Catholic thinks of the bishop as ‘father’ when many of them are clerically immature, lacking the emotional intelligence for genuine leadership.
The simple fact is that in the real-world business leaders and executives would be sacked for the gross incompetence shown by the bishops. Its about time some ‘real world’ standards were applied to the church. The time has come for the Australian episcopate to emulate their Chilean colleagues and resign en masse. But my advice is: don’t hold your breath folks!
Paul Collins’ latest book is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018).