At this point, there are only four possible explanations for what happened to a crucial letter

“How bad is it?” That was the question a friend put to me, à propos the leadership crisis in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis precipitated the crisis by levelling repeated accusations of calumny against survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by a prominent Chilean cleric, Fernando Karadima, who was convicted of his crimes by a Vatican court in 2011. Karadima’s victims claim one of their abuser’s protégés, Juan Barros – ordained bishop in 1995 and appointed by Pope Francis to head the diocese of Osorno, Chile, in 2015 – witnessed the abuse they suffered at Karadima’s hands, covered for his mentor and enabled his abusive behaviour. Put just like that, it is bad enough.

It gets worse.

Pope Francis first accused the victims of calumny in a heat-of-the-moment exchange with a reporter in a press gaggle at the gate of the Iquique venue where he was heading to say Mass on the last day of his recent visit to Chile. News of the Pope’s “hot takes” overshadowed the final, Peruvian leg of his South American tour. The Pope then used his in-flight press conference – days later – on the return trip to Rome, to double down on his accusations of calumny, saying he has not received any evidence of Barros’ alleged wrongdoing, and that the victims had never brought their case to him. “You [reporters], in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward,” Pope Francis said.

Even at the time Pope Francis made it – again, during the in-flight presser en route to Rome from Peru, days after his impromptu response had garnered the attention of the press – the assertion was, to say the very least, problematic.

The accusations against Barros have been before the public since at least 2012. Victims have given testimony to Chilean prosecutors regarding the matter. It appears, therefore, that the Pope’s assertion can save itself only if it rests on a hyper-technicality: that he had no direct, personal acquaintance with the accusations. Upon hearing the Pope’s claim, however, the abuse survivor and former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Marie Collins, made it known that she had delivered an 8-page letter to the Pope describing life in the Chilean institute where their abuse took place and detailing Barros’s alleged role in their abuse. The letter, Collins explained to AP, was from Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of Karadima and Barros’s most outspoken accuser. Collins claims she delivered the letter in 2015, through the Pope’s own chief adviser on sexual abuse matters (and president of the Commission for the Protection of Minors), Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston.

About the letter and its delivery, Marie Collins told the Catholic Herald: “It was at the time a private letter [written in Spanish] from Juan Carlos Cruz to the Holy Father.” Collins went on to explain: “As well as I can recollect it was sealed when given to Cardinal O’Malley. It was in a simple plain envelope. I did have a general idea of its content as [Mr Cruz] had also sent a detailed explanation of events in English.” Asked specifically about Cardinal O’Malley’s confirmation of delivery, Collins told the Herald: “He said he had given the letter directly to the Holy Father and that at the same time he had discussed our concerns about Bishop Barros with him.”

At this point, there are four possibilities: Collins and Cruz are both lying about the letter; Cardinal O’Malley gravely misrepresented the diligence with which he discharged his promise to deliver it directly to Pope Francis (though Collins has expressed full confidence in him on several occasions); Pope Francis received the letter and did not read it; Pope Francis received it and read it, only to forget about it.

If O’Malley did not deliver the letter directly into the hands of the Pope, he needs to say so. If Pope Francis did receive the letter, only to put it aside without reading it, he needs to say so, and explain why he did not read it. If the Pope did receive it, and read it, then the only way to save him from an accusation of deliberate untruthfulness is to admit he is relying on another hyper-technicality: that he received nothing submitted specifically and explicitly as evidence in an open judicial process, or that he received no new evidence – i.e. evidence about which he had no prior knowledge of any kind in any capacity – or that he received no evidence of Barros’s wrongdoing as a bishop, such as would warrant investigation and possibly trial under pertinent law.

As Fr Robert Gahl, who teaches ethics at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, told Catholic News Agency in a story that ran earlier this week, “[Barros’s] alleged failure to report did not constitute episcopal negligence and yet his being somehow an accessory, at least insofar as he is accused of not having stopped a crime from taking place, would constitute the negligence of someone who is now a bishop.” The accusations against Barros arguably come to more than failure to report abuse. In any case, the point is that Pope Francis appointed Barros to the See of Osorno in 2015, years after the accusations against Barros were public knowledge.

The appointment of Barros was also over and against the objections of the bishops of Chile, who wrote to Pope Francis about the matter. The Holy Father responded to the Chilean bishops with his own letter, in which he explained that he had in fact asked Barros to resign the post in which he found himself at the time (when Barros was appointed to Osorno he was bishop of the Chilean forces). The Pope also asked Barros to take a year’s sabbatical, before being considered for any other post. The AP story detailing the exchanges reports that the Apostolic Nuncio to Chile, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, who acted as go-between, also told Barros that two other bishops who came up under Karadima were being given similar requests, and reportedly also told Barros to keep the news to himself. Barros, however, decided to give the names of the two other bishops in a letter he wrote announcing his renunciation of the military see. At that point, instead of sending Barros into retirement as damaged goods, or rejecting him as insubordinate, Pope Francis decided to make Barros the head of the Church in Osorno.

Quite apart from the legal cavils, the question is: what was Pope Francis thinking?

In various public and private conversations about the crisis, a few people have suggested that Pope Francis may have read and then forgotten about the letter. The details of the published excerpts alone make that highly unlikely. An AP story published last Sunday contains lurid particulars. “[W]e were in Karadima’s room,” the story quotes Cruz’s letter, “and Juan Barros – if he wasn’t kissing Karadima – would watch when Karadima would touch us – the minors – and make us kiss him, saying: ‘Put your mouth near mine and stick out your tongue.’ He would stick his out and kiss us with his tongue.” If Pope Francis could read those sentences and forget he had, then there is reason to suspect that he is not in full possession of his faculties.

If the letter was intercepted after Cardinal O’Malley delivered it, and before Pope Francis had a chance to read it, then the Holy Father is a victim of a grave and likely criminal disservice that has damaged his credibility. If he is a victim of such a disservice, he must nevertheless own his dismissal of the general public claims registered in the letter, and account for his part in the creation of a working environment in which such miscarriage was possible. He must also apologise to the persons whose names and reputations he has injured.

Even if the outstanding questions regarding Pope Francis’s handling of the Barros affair are clarified – as they must be – the crisis of leadership in the Church will nevertheless remain.

The known facts of this case and others constitutive of Pope Francis’s record in these regards bespeak a style of governance in which the man at the top is more inclined to listen to fellow clerics, than to victims: to believe bishops – ones with skin in the game, to boot – over laity who bring credible allegations of clerical misbehaviour; to trust his own “gut instinct” even when it is informed by the opinion of interested parties, and to compound this imprudence with the self-delusion of self-reliance in these regards; to believe he can manage the crisis of clerical sexual abuse by way of gimmicks like the powerless Commission for the Protection of Minors he set up between 2014 and 2015 before ignoring it and allowing it to expire; to blame underlings and hide behind cavils of law, rather than face the filth in the Church squarely and fight it without ruth or stint.

How bad is it? It is very bad indeed. If the manner in which the crisis as it has heretofore unfolded in the worldwide Church, and especially in the US and Ireland, is any lesson, then a candid mind would not be incapable of concluding that Pope Francis is not only part of the problem, but that he is the problem.