Criticism of the Catholic Church’s effort to promote accountability on clergy sex abuse is poised to intensify as the Vatican stands by its decision to back a controversial Chilean bishop who has been linked to an alleged cover-up of child abuse. The controversy over the appointment of Juan Barros as bishop of Osorno is raising doubts about the pace of reforms promised by Pope Francis, who has made a zero tolerance approach to clergy sex abuse a cornerstone of his papacy. But, according to a prominent U.S. expert on Catholic Church matters, the controversy is a snag in the reform process rather than the indication of a retreat.  

A spokesperson for the Holy See announced Tuesday that the Church’s Congregation of Bishops had "carefully examined the prelate's candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment," in the Vatican’s first official comment on the divisive case. The news comes amid a growing controversy over the bishop’s appointment in Chile, where protests broke out last week during his installation ceremony at the cathedral of the southern city of Osorno. About 3,000 people gathered to protest Barros on Saturday, demanding that he resign his post.

The outrage stems from Barros’ connection to one of Chile’s most notorious pedophile priests, Father Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty of abusing teenage boys over the years in a 2011 Vatican investigation. Critics allege that Barros was not only aware of the abuse but also helped to cover it up in his capacity as Karadima’s protégé. The bishop has denied having any knowledge of the abuse, claiming to have found out about the allegations only through news reports.

Catholic clergy in Chile have voiced their opposition to Barros’ installation, with one of the most vocal critics, Father Alex Vigueras of Santiago’s Congregation of the Sacred Heart, saying the appointment was “not attuned with the zero tolerance [policy on pedophilia] that is trying to be installed in the church,” the Guardian reported.

Barros’ appointment is making waves beyond Chile, too. Several members of Pope Francis’ sex abuse advisory board, known as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, have expressed their concerns about his decision to appoint the bishop despite the allegations.

"As a survivor, I'm very surprised at the appointment in Chile because it seems to go against … what the Holy Father has been saying about not wanting anyone in positions of trust in the church who don't have an absolutely 100 percent record of child protection," said Marie Collins, an Irish member of the commission, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter. "[Barros] is not accused of abuse himself in anyway," she continued. "He may have been aware of it and did nothing. And that's enough."

The reaction from members of the commission and from within Chile shows that the appointment was not a prudent decision by the Vatican, said the Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College. “I believe it is sending the wrong message. The fact that [Barros] was named shows a certain tone deafness or lack of sensitivity even today among people involved in these decision-making processes.”

Despite the growing criticisms, however, the negative implications of the move are unlikely to more seriously undermine Francis or his reform agenda, Bretzke argued. “Does this help his agenda? No. But it’s also not going to condemn the possibility of moving forward either.”

Instead, the controversy will likely just underscore the challenges the popular pope faces in counteracting a culture that remains pervasive in the Vatican. “Prudent people should have been able to determine the nomination of this man as bishop was likely to have serious negative ramifications and it is still unfortunately the culture of the larger church and the Vatican, but not the culture of Pope Francis,” Bretzke said.

Francis has made a point of publicly denouncing problems within the Vatican in his efforts to reform the institution. While the pope’s rhetoric may have been met with some stiff resistance from traditionalists within the church, it has also helped to boost his image around the world. A recent Pew poll showed that Francis enjoys broad global support, with Catholics in Europe and Latin America overwhelmingly supporting him. The pope is also widely seen as a positive force for change in the Catholic church, particularly as it confronts longstanding issues like its cover-ups of clergy sex abuse.

“Is the Church doing enough at present to change its culture of clericalism that leads to, or supports, such cover ups?  Probably not enough,” Bretzke said. “Though important positive steps have been taken in this regard and no individual can claim more credit for these positive developments than the current pope.”