The Catholic Church in Chile has lost all credibility

La Croix International [France]

June 9, 2022

By Marguerite de Lasa

Four years after all the bishops of Chile submitted their resignation to the pope, the Catholic Church in the country appears to be mired in a crisis it cannot overcome

When running an errand in the center of Santiago, the capital of Chile, Gina always stops at the Catholic cathedral.

The 67-year-old stays there for about 20 minutes, thanking the Lord for her health and entrusting her son who lives far away. She also prays every night at home.

But she has not been to Mass for the past ten years.

“After all that has happened, all the sexual abuse, we no longer trust. How can we go to Mass and confess before a priest?” she exclaims.

“In Chile, all the indicators of trust in the Church are down, except for popular piety,” says Eduardo Valenzuela, a sociologist of religion at the Pontifical University of Chile.

“What characterizes this piety is that it does not require the mediation of a priest,” he admits. It is not a crisis of Christian faith, but a crisis of faith in the Catholic Church.

A crisis with no end in sight

Pope Francis’ visit to Chile in January 2018, and the weeks following it, caused an earthquake in the Chilean Church that really brought the sexual abuse crisis to light.

The pope summoned the Chilean bishops to Rome the following May and they all submitted their resignations. A couple of weeks after Francis published a “Letter to the People of God in Chile” in which he denounced clericalism and “a culture of abuse and cover-up”.

“At that moment, I had hoped that things would change,” confides José Andrés Murillo, who founded an association to help victims of clerical sex abuse. He, too, was abused by the charismatic and notorious pedophile former priest, Fernando Karadima.

Four years after the pope’s letter, the Catholic Church in Chile seems to be mired in a crisis with no end in sight.

Only 19% of all Catholics said they had confidence in the institution in 2021. That’s a huge difference from 2006 when some 58% of believers said they trusted the Church.

Catholicism seems to be in freefall in Chile. Only 42% of the population declared themselves to be Catholic last year, compared to 70% fifteen years ago, according to a survey by the Catholic University.

“It’s one of the fastest drops in the world,” Valenzuela contends. But it’s hard to pinpoint the main cause.

The sex abuse crisis and secularization

“Unlike in France, where the process of secularization predates the abuse crisis, in Chile there are two phenomena that began about 20 years ago and reinforce each other and cause a very rapid change,” says the sociologist.

This is even more profound since the revelations of cases of sexual violence multiplied after 2018. More than half of the complaints recorded by the Church were between 2018 and 2019.

Among the priests accused of sexual abuse are emblematic figures like Father Renato Poblete, a Jesuit who died in 2010 following 20 years as chaplain for Hogar de Cristo, the main Chilean charity.

A statue was erected in his memory and a park was named after him. “He represented the best of the Chilean Church,” Valenzuela insists.

The Church’s influence in promoting human rights has been waning since October 2019.

“It faces enormous difficulties in being recognized as a player in the public debate,” analyzes Valenzuela.

Marcial Sánchez Gaete, a Church historian, even estimates that “one of the aspects of the revolt was the distrust of the institution”.

It “did not give a firm response” in the crisis, Valenzuela believes, summarizing the conclusion of a report he directed in 2020.

“It must finance an independent commission of truth, justice and reparation, as was done in France,” says José Andrés Murillo.

But Sergio Pérez de Arce, secretary general of the Chilean bishops’ conference, is striking a more conciliatory tone.

“If society demands broader studies on the issue of abuse, not only in the Church, but also in other institutions, we are of course willing to collaborate,” he says.