So much for Cool Pope Francis, Francis the Nice Guy Pontiff:

Pope Francis has accused abuse victims in Chile of slandering a bishop who they say protected a pedophile priest, upending his efforts to rehabilitate the Catholic Church’s reputation while visiting South America.

Francis told reporters Thursday there was not a shred of evidence against Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who victims of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious priest, have accused of being complicit in his crimes.

“The day someone brings me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk,” Francis said before celebrating Mass outside the northern Chilean city of Iquique. “But there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?”

The pope’s comments set off a storm in Chile, raising questions about his commitment to repairing the damage from sexual abuse scandals and improving the decline in the church’s image and following in the traditionally devout country.

“Pope Francis’ attack on the Karadima victims is a stunning setback,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a group that monitors abuse cases. “He has just turned back the clock to the darkest days of this crisis. Who knows how many victims now will decide to stay hidden, for fear they will not be believed?”

Father Karadima was convicted by the Vatican in 2011 of abusing teenage boys beginning in the 1980s, and he was ordered to lead a “life of prayer and penitence.” That year, a judge found the allegations “truthful and reliable” but dismissed a criminal case because the statute of limitations had expired.

Bishop Barros, to be clear, has not been accused of sexual misbehavior. He is accused of participating in a cover-up. In 2015, at the mass to ordain him as a bishop, hundreds of local Catholics gathered outside and inside the cathedral to object (video here).

The Jesuit magazine America says:

There have been denunciations against Bishop Barros for a cover-up, with some claiming that he was present when some of the abuse happened. But he flatly denies the charges, and the church inquiry that was carried out concluded that, while there are many allegations, there are no hard facts that could stand up in a court to substantiate such charges.

The Associated Press reported a few days ago:

Chile’s Catholic Church was thrown into crisis in 2010 when former parishioners publicly accused Karadima of sexually abusing them when they were minors, starting in the 1980s — accusations they had made years earlier to Chilean church leaders but that were ignored. The scandal grew as Chilean prosecutors and Vatican investigators took testimony from the victims, who accused Barros and other Karadima proteges of having witnessed the abuse and doing nothing about it.

In his Jan. 31, 2015, letter, written in response to Chilean church leaders’ complaints about the Barros appointment, Francis revealed for the first time that he knew that the issue was controversial and that his ambassador in Chile had tried to find a way to contain the damage well before the case made headlines.

“Thank you for having openly demonstrated the concern that you have about the appointment of Monsignor Juan Barros,” Francis wrote in the letter, addressed to the executive committee of the Chilean bishops’ conference. “I understand what you’re telling me and I’m aware that the situation of the church in Chile is difficult due to the trials you’ve had to undergo.”

Francis was once recorded telling pilgrims that the Catholics of Osorno are “dumb,” and suffer because the allowed themselves to be manipulated by false accusations:

Papal biographer and ardent Francis supporter Austen Ivereigh just spent time interviewing Bishop Barros and Bishop Horacio Valenzuela, another Karadima protegé. Excerpt:

Barros and Valenzuela also point to the oddity that, despite dozens of men being involved in the comings and goings at the time in El Bosque – it was a cauldron of vocations, which generated 40 priests and 5 bishops – it is only those who later became bishops that the victims have accused of covering up.

Yet because the abuse by Karadima is not in doubt, the assumption of national and international media is that the victims must be also telling the truth about Barros and two other bishops, including Valenzuela. In fact, it is hard to find anyone in Santiago – in the Church or outside it – who is prepared to believe Barros’s innocence. [Emphasis mine — RD]

So great was the pressure generated by the accusations that when the Congregation of Bishops decided, in late 2014, to appoint Barros – who had been for the previous decade bishop to the armed forces – Chile’s leading bishops, including Ezzati, strenuously opposed the move, arguing to Francis that it would be a disaster for the Church.

But Francis, convinced of Barros’s innocence – the pope described to Barros the accusations as self-evidently inconsistent – pressed ahead with the appointment which Barros prepared for in January-February 2015 with a 30-day Jesuit retreat in Spain, meeting afterwards with Francis in Rome.

Against a background of fury at the decision, Barros offered at that meeting to the pope to stand down, but Francis insisted he proceed. Barros told me that throughout he has sought to be docile to the pope’s will, trusting that Francis was the best judge.

Many of Chile’s leading bishops – including not just Ezzati, but the president of the bishops’ conference – were conspicuously absent from Barros’s chaotic installation in Osorno on March 21, 2015, when angry, at times violent, protesters drowned out the Mass. (While he had expected demonstrators, Barros said nothing prepared him for the violence and hatred on show that day).

Francis’s dogged determination to support Barros against this tide from both Church and society must be counted as one of the boldest – or, perhaps, most foolhardy – decisions of his pontificate. There was a price to pay on his own anti-abuse commission, whose two survivor members, Peter Saunders and Marie Collins, objected strongly that the voices of Karadima’s victims were being “ignored.”

Incredible. More from the NYT:

Francis began his visit to Chile on Tuesday morning by publicly apologizing for the sexual abuse involving the clergy, saying he felt “pained and ashamed” over the “irreparable damage” done to their victims. But he refused to meet with victims of Father Karadima.

What a fraud. Words, empty words. Does the pope not remember the cruelty of John Paul II’s arrogant refusal to believe the accusers of Marcial Maciel? Even if it’s true that no solid evidence exists that Bishop Barros was part of a cover-up, the Catholic Church hierarchy has very little credibility to call Catholic priests and laymen upset over this “dumb.” This is not only shockingly cruel, it is foolish and self-destructive for the Pope.