Pope Francis is known for his compassion toward the poor and the powerless. So when in January he not only defended bishop Juan Barros Madrid–a priest implicated in a massive Chilean Catholic Church scandal—but called his protesters “dumb,” it devastated those who had seen the Pope as an ally. Since then both Francis and the Catholic Church have reversed their position, but the pain of their initial response lingers. How the Pope made this mistake, and how he’s responded since, are a cautionary tale for American evangelical churches coming face to face with their own crises.
The story of Bishop Barros begins with the story of Fernando Karadima, a once highly respected priest from an affluent parish in Chile. In 2011 the Catholic Church found Karadima guilty of sexually abusing an untold number of minors over the span of decades. The statute of limitations meant Karadima could not be tried in civil court, but he was permanently removed from office and sentenced to a life of penance and prayer. Barros had worked with Karadima for 30 years, and had been accused of both observing and ignoring Karadima’s sexual abuse of victims.
Privately, Pope Francis attempted to relocate Barros and other priests connected to Karadima, but when that failed, Barros was appointed to the Diocese of Osorno in Chile, a move so controversial Barros’ first official homily was cut short by protesters. It was at this point Francis referred to Barros’ critics as being dumb,and influenced by the agenda of leftist politicians.
Since that moment, Francis has had a seeming change of heart, in part from a massive 3,200 page report of the Chilean scandal, and abuse survivors claiming Barros observed some of Kardima’s crimes, and helped cover them up. Recently, 34 Chilean bishops offered their resignation, and Pope Francis has invited dozens of abuse survivors to visit the Vatican for a personal apology.
It’s easy to view this scandal, and the pandemic of scandals that have scarred the Catholic Church over the past 20 years, as a sign of Catholicism’s spiritual illegitimacy, and evangelicalism’s theological correctness. However, some experts close to the community warn that there is just as systemic a crisis within evangelicalism, and that our culture’s heightened awareness of sexual abuse may very well bring about a reckoning. Evangelical experts in the field of sexual abuse—people like Boz Tchividjian or Diane Langberg—see anecdotal examples such as Bob Jones University, Bill Gothard, Sovereign Grace Churches, and Willow Creek Church not as outliers, but rather the tip of an iceberg.
It’s also worth examining the current case of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, who was asked to retire early after a series of scandals, including alleged failure to adequately protect abuse victims. The way the SBC is handling Patterson’s removal feels a little like Pope Francis failing to fully remove Barrios from the church. The fact that Patterson has been appointed President Emeritus, will continue to receive a paycheck, and be given on-campus housing, could come back to haunt the SBC. While Patterson’s scandal is not the moral equivalent of the Chilean sex scandal, it’s worth asking if these sort of half-measures only exacerbate the damage to a denomination already seen by some as having failed to protect victims of abuse.
Statistics on sexual abuse in the evangelical church are nearly non-existent and difficult to compile, but public records between 2016-2017 show 192 reported instances of a church leader being publicly charged for an array of sexual crimes involving a minor like rape, molestation, battery, and child pornography. This does not include unreported crimes, pastoral abusers who haven’t been caught, or arguably the most frequent scenario: abuse committed by a congregant.