Who Were You, Father Karadima?
By Hector Soto
January 16, 2012
(Ed. Note: Fernando Karadima, 81, is the most conspicuous of Chilean priests to have been found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors. Before his unmasking, he ruled over a rich, conservative Santiago parish for more than 40 years. He was famous for shepherding bright young men—including four of Chile’s current bishops—into the priesthood. In February 2011, the Vatican sentenced him to a life of penance and prayer in seclusion.
(Hector Soto is a writer for all seasons. A columnist and film critic for La Tercera, where the following column appeared on Jan. 13, he examines culture in daily broadcasts on Chile’s main classical music station, Radio Beethoven.)
Just when we thought we knew everything about Karadima, another book appears to amaze and appall us. “The Secrets of Karadima’s Rule,” written by Juan Andres Guzman, Gustavo Villarrubia and Monica Gonzalez, is a rigorous investigative report that reads like a novel—for 450 frightening and inflammatory pages.
How is it possible, the reader asks, that such deception and shameless abuse happened unpunished for so long? Apart from the criminal acts the priest committed upon the young boys immediately around him, the book reveals (1) the intellectual atmosphere Karadima imposed on his congregation—superficial, exclusive, anti-woman, secretive, and based on extortion; (2) his command of the flood of money that came to his church; and (3) the way in which he shaped the Santiago archdiocese by getting his fervent disciples into seminary and positions where they made Chilean church policy.
Now, nobody is going to swallow a story of Manichean evil; Karadima must have had amazing skills as an organizer and a fiery charisma that drew people to him. Nothing less could have created the tremendously powerful sectarian apparatus that his parish became. He had a ravenous instinct for power. And he did what he is celebrated for doing: established spiritual study groups, the Union of Pious Priests, strong ties to business benefactors, channels to recruit young males of good family to the priesthood. All to control—or was it to release?—his demons.
It’s unlikely that it was done just to masturbate a few boys. The deeds aren’t on the same scale. He was a wolf, obviously—but a very odd wolf. A repressed wolf, to begin with, never orgiastic in his indiscretions. A hypocritical wolf, too, because all his actions had a showy layer of detachment and piety that both disarmed the weak and excited the powerful to open their wallets.
The report on him by the government’s forensic psychologists stresses his narcissistic and repressive personality. Obviously he had a splendid self-image. The single fault he acknowledged was too strong a character; when you read this, you wonder if he wasn’t kidding—offering a defect that in fact looks more like a virtue. Because he so much wanted to be admired (admired more than loved), he invented a friendship with [Chile’s second saint, the Jesuit priest] Alberto Hurtado [1901-52] that pushed him into an epic biography totally not his own.
A glad-hander? Absolutely. But he took things much further. Only a superior intelligence could have blended with such ease the traces of perversity he left in his various activities with the weaknesses and reactionary beliefs he detected in large segments of the Chilean elite. Was this mixture just a coincidence or part of his plan? The question is legitimate because without a warped group of supporters he could never have achieved what he achieved. There must have been not only a lot of manipulation on his part but a lot of anxiety and willed stupidity in his environment for him to rise to his exalted height. A sick mind needs a sick environment to thrive. In healthy societies even wolves usually have no choice but to play sheep. Not here in Chile. And so Karadima did what he wanted for a long, long time.
This is a remarkable and very disturbing book. It raises a host of uncomfortable questions about Chilean society and in particular the Catholic Church. Karadima is no longer lording over El Bosque parish, but there's every reason to fear that the lessons of his case have not been learned. If they had been, more people would now be speaking out.
Translated by Bill Stott firstname.lastname@example.org