Commissions to prevent clergy sexual abuse in Latin America, a report

Los Ángeles Press [Ciudad de México, Mexico]

April 22, 2024

By Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez

Despite the many predator clergymen all over Latin America, prevention is not a priority for the Roman Catholic bishops in the region.

Information about the crisis, how to file a report or how to seek assistance is, for the most part, hard to find if not absent in the websites of the Latin American Catholic Church.

Two weeks ago, Los Ángeles Press published a report on how many of the Roman Catholic dioceses in Mexico have met the goal of setting up a local commission to prevent clergy sexual abuse.

This week I present a basic comparison of how the 18 national conferences of Roman Catholic bishops deal with clergy sexual abuse in the Websites each of them sustain in their countries. The Catholic Church in Latin America is organized in the so-called Council of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, CELAM for short. It must be noticed, however, that as far as the Caribbean nations this piece only includes the Dominican Republic.

Although Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti, are members of CELAM, my perception is that Puerto Rico is closer to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops than to CELAM or any of its Latin American counterparts.

Haiti has been in the middle of a profound political crisis, so deep that the last time I was able to reach the website of the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, the one that used to offer information about the Haitian Catholic Church at large, was earlier this year, right after the kidnapping of a group of six nuns and, even then, the last time the website had been updated was back in October 2023.

I have little or no information about the Catholic Church at large in Cuba, much less about cases of clergy sexual abuse there, so I have decided to exclude any reference to that case to avoid any potential bias.

Although it is impossible to assume that the website of each of the continental national conferences of Catholic Bishops dedicated to deal with the effects of clergy sexual abuse equals a good handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in that country, the design and performance of the website of the national conference of Catholic bishops on this matter provides material, observable, perhaps even measurable, evidence of how much attention they are paying to the issue.


In theory, ever since the last major reform by Pope Francis on this topic, that of Summer 2021, there was the expectation of major changes happening at a global scale.

In theory, as far as it is possible to observe, the idea is that each country with a national conference of Roman Catholic should have at least a national body to deal with the prevention of abuse.

Then, each national conference of bishops seems to be able to decide whether they will work around with only that national body, or if they will create one of such bodies for each of the dioceses in every country.

Makes sense that relatively small countries such as those in Central America and the Caribbean address the issue with one national commission and some sort of representative for each of the dioceses in the country.

Even some larger countries in South America, as large as Colombia and its 47.7 million inhabitants, 35.7 million of them Roman Catholic, have decided to go with a single national body in the form of a council.

Mexico, with its 126 million inhabitants, 98 million of them Catholic, and Argentina, with its 44.9 million total population and 27.9 million Roman Catholic, seem to be following a model with one national council and separate bodies for each of their 99 and 72, respectively, dioceses, but there is no clarity as to whether or not these designs are final or even as to how much time each country has to opt for any of these two models.

Time is probably not relevant for an institution whose most insensitive leaders seem prone to boast about the 20 centuries of history behind it, but it is a key issue for the everyday lives of the victims and their relatives and friends and, if I am forced to say so, for the very future of an institution that is going through a crisis of trust.

Some change has happened. However, there is—once again—a loss in momentum. As the piece on the piece on Mexico proved, the peak to set up commissions to prevent abuse in that country was reached by 2020, when 30 out of the 44 existing entities were launched by the bishops. In 2021, only one commission was created, and more than three years later, no new commission has been set up.

As that piece stated, there is no clear pattern. It is not as if the poor Mexican dioceses were struggling due to the lack of funding or as if all the archdioceses, the largest and richest dioceses in the country were all done with that task.

Black boxes

As far as the commissions to prevent abuse in Mexico is concerned, the situation is mixed, and the same can be said about the process at Latin America at large.

Why poor countries as Paraguay and Bolivia have some of the best approaches to this issue?

Why the Church in Venezuela, under an authoritarian regime that every now and then strains the relation with the Church, has been able to set up a rather straightforward website with some basic information?

Why the Catholic bishops in Panama and the Dominican Republic, relatively stable democracies in the region, where the Church enjoys the protection of both national governments are the proverbial “black boxes” where nobody knows what is happening?

It is not that, as one possible example, the bishops in the Dominican Republic can deny the extent of the crisis there. Santo Domingo, the capital of that country, witnessed how Polish bishop and diplomat Józef Wesołowski was forced to resign his post as apostolic nuncio there on August 13th, 2013. Later, he would be arrested and submitted to trial in Rome. An actual sentence on his case remains a mystery since he died during the process at a Vatican jail, on August 28th, 2015. One year prior, on June 27th, 2014, he was laicized by his peers at the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

The Dominican authorities deemed Wesołowski as guilty of abusing teen Dominican males. His forced resignation was one of the hundred cases of bishops accused of clergy sexual abuse with which Los Ángeles Press marked the 40th anniversary of the crisis.

So, it should be clear that there is no actual pattern. This piece cannot address the larger question of why Catholic bishops are unwilling to tackle the clergy sexual abuse crisis they have been dealing with for the last four decades. Given that restriction, one can only try to figure out why could be behind the specific responses of some national conference of bishops as compared to other.

The Chilean experience

One relevant case to understand the responses of the national conferences of bishops to the crisis comes from Chile. Their website is the only one in Latin America where potential victims of clergy sexual abuse can get some information as to how to proceed before both the civil authorities and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

It is also the only website where language is a bit more clear as to the extent of the abuse. Instead of mincing words as in the case of almost all the other websites with some information about the commissions, the Chilean bishops openly talk about “abuso sexual” (sexual abuse), with no recourse to euphemisms or technicalities.

The Chilean bishops are hardly an example to follow, since it is possible to see how they minimize or even deny the very nature of the sexual abuse cases in their country.

They attack survivors and their families, they also block any interaction with them in social media, as if blocking a victim/survivor, a relative of a victim, an advocate, or even a journalist was going to solve the issues the Church confronts there are the series de revelations going from the abuse of young males under his care perpetrated by Karadima to the heterosexual abuse of adult females carried by now defunct Jesuit priest Renato Poblete, or the sexual abuse of underage girls, as done by John O’Reilly, an Irish member of the Mexican “order” the Legion of Christ.

Despite those facts, in the context of the responses from the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, theirs seems to be one of the most complete to try to address at least the most obvious aspects of the crisis.

It is worth keeping in mind that the Andean nation saw what seemed to be a major shakeup of the structure of the Catholic Church back in 2018, and some features of their website seem to support the idea that, unlike some other countries in the region, Chilean bishops acknowledge to some extent the need to accept that something awful happened in their country.

It was not easy. As it is still the case in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and to some extent in the Argentine and Mexican dioceses unwilling to even set up their commissions to prevent abuse it only happened after Pope Francis disastrous visit to both Chile and Peru in the last days of January 2018.

Pope Francis himself traveled there to double down his decision to force down his own appointment of one of the so-called “Karadima’s bishops”. Fernando Karadima was in the same league as Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, Marcial Maciel, among many other sexual predators with many victims, and who happen to be founders of religious “orders” serving for many years as “hunting grounds” to satisfy their “needs”.

The “Karadima’s bishops” as a group of four members of the Chilean national conference of Roman Catholic Bishops including Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid, who was appointed bishop of Osorno by Pope Francis after serving for several years as head of the military diocese.

Appointed as bishop of Osorno in January 2015, Barros Madrid is one of the very few cases in the history of the Catholic Church of a bishop forced out of office by a massive social movement, that included massive protests at the Cathedral of Osorno, a small city more than 900 kilometers, almost 600 miles, south of Santiago de Chile, the national capital of the Andean nation.

It is not clear if the Chilean bishops actually acknowledge the disastrous effects of their behavior, since one of them caused some trouble when re-entered active duty as an auxiliary bishop of sorts in a small town in the Mediterranean coast of Spain, but it is clear for me that their website reflects a change in attitude absent in the websites of the Brazilian, Panamanian, Nicaraguan, and Dominican bishops.

European contrasts

Must be noted that uneven responses to the crisis are not the exclusive patrimony of the Latin American national conferences of bishops. One can see similar differences in the response to the crisis in Europe when comparing the attitudes of the German, Irish, and French bishops, on the one hand, to the could-not-care-less attitude of the Spanish and especially the Italian conferences of bishops.

In Germany, to highlight only the most relevant European case of major shakeups brought by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, two Cardinals tendered their resignations back in 2021.

First, cardinal Reinhard Marx resigned his charge as archbishop of Munich and Freising in June 2021. Munich is the see held briefly by Joseph Ratzinger, future Pope Benedict XVI from 1977 until 1985, when John Paul II appointed him as prefect of the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger never really left Munich. Quite the opposite; he remained a major figure in the archdiocese. Moreover, given his position in Karol Wojtyla’s Roman curia, his power and influence over that and many other dioceses in the German-speaking world, only grew as he became some sort of “Pope of the German-speaking world”, until he finally became the Polish Pope’s successor back in 2005.

Said power became more relevant as news about the potential role of his elder brother Georg emerged in the late 1990s, and more so when, already in the current century, the German conference of bishops commissioned a report on sexual abuse.

The findings of such report became the source of a major rift in Munich and elsewhere in the German-speaking world, as this report from The Associated Press, published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation details.

A few weeks after Marx’s failed resignation, in September, cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki also resigned as archbishop of Cologne. As with Marx’s, Pope Francis rejected his resignation but allowed Woelki to take a rather unusual leave of absence from his position from October 2021, until March 2022.

It was around this time, when the world was still affected the coronavirus pandemic effects, that Pope Francis issued his reform of the Code of Canon Law. Despite the reform’s changes to 90 of the roughly 1,750 articles of Church rules contained in that Code, it is hard to find up until today any major, noticeable effect of the reform.

A botched reform

Pope Francis’s reform, although massive by some accounts, included stricter and more immediate penalties for the Catholic faithful willing to challenge the rules on female ordination than for those accused of sexual abuse.

It is not as if there are no changes at all. Tutela Minorum, the entity responsible for preventing abuses in the Catholic Church at a global scale, addressed some of the major flaws of the original design of that consultative body. Although marred by allegations of opacity, Tutela Minorum now has a building and patrimony of its own, so it can develop its tasks with a modicum of autonomy.

Its new building is in Rome, but outside of Vatican City, so the survivors of sexual abuse have a chance to avoid contact with the very bureaucracy that revictimized them.

In Latin America, Tutela Minorum has been rather active. A corresponding body Cepromelat was created, although affected by some of the same problems that the global body had at its inception, namely the lack of funding, Cepromelat now has some online and offline presence.

It holds some regular activity, but as a rather sad reflection of the state of affairs in the Catholic Church, it comes short when it is confronted with the expectations of the victims, their families, and the media.

In the largest Latin American country, Brazil, which also has the largest Roman Catholic population worldwide, there is no record of a national corresponding council or committee, and there is no trace in the national conference of Brazilian bishops of any tangible interest in addressing the issue.

I cannot say if there are diocesan commissions or committees addressing the issue, but if they are there is no information about them in the website of the Brazilian national conference of Catholic bishops.

In Mexico, the country with the second largest population in the region and the country with the second largest Roman Catholic population worldwide, less than half the dioceses have set up a commission to at least prevent abuses, as can be found in the report linked immediately above this paragraph.

Latin American complexities

In Argentina, the Pope’s country of origin, there is no publicly available information to support the idea that the bishops are attuned with their leader and fellow countryman on the relevance of the sexual abuse crisis for the future of the Catholic Church.

This happens despite the known closeness of Pope Francis and the national conference of bishops’ chair, Óscar Vicente Ojea Quintana, the bishop of San Isidro and a former auxiliary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio during his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.

I cannot think of a closer relation between the Pope and the chair of any national conference of bishops worldwide. Despite such closeness there is no actual evidence of any diocesan commission or body to prevent sexual abuse in the dioceses of Argentina, at least not at the Conferencia Episcopal Argentina website.

When one visits that website one needs to make lots of guessing to figure out that clicking unde the “Novedades” (News) heading there is a contextual menu called “Links de interés” (Relevant links) and that if one clicks there there is a link to a “Consejo de Protección CEA”, that is to say to a “Protection Council CEA” or a “Safeguarding Council CEA”.

It must be noted, however, that said link opens a separate website named (in Spanish) Pastoral Council for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults (Consejo Pastoral para la Protección de Menores y Adultos Vulnerables), similar to its Mexican counterpart, the Consejo Nacional de Protección de Menores.

Unlike the Mexican webpage, where one can find the links to the information for each of the dioceses with a commission or committee, in the Argentine website, there is more information about the members of the national body, but no actual information of how each diocese in Argentina is dealing with the issue.

Only one archdiocese, that of Paraná, the capital city of the Entre Ríos province, 360 kilometers (220 miles) north of Buenos Aires, had at some point a website for its local commission to prevent sexual abuse.

This website is linked at the council’s page on the national conference of bishops’ website, but it does not appear as “online”. To reads its contents, one needs to do it through the Internet Archive.

The former chair of that commission, Mrs. Inés Franck, a lawyer graduated at the Catholic University at Buenos Aires, is the current head of Cepromelat, the entity dealing with prevention of clergy sexual abuse all over Latin America.

From South America, given the nature of the scandal there back in the second half of 2023, it is worth mentioning how the bishops of Bolivia are tackling the issue. The national conference of bishops there, the Conferencia Episcopal Boliviana highlights a page devoted to Statements issued by the diocesan bodies that in theory should had been created (Comunicados de las Comisiones de Prevención), but only one letter to Pope Francis appears there. There is also one additional page called Preventative Commissions (Comisiones de Prevención).

This page displays three links. One called Reports (Denuncias), where the visitor can fill a Google Forms questionnaire to initiate a report, or the visitor can pick whether to initiate a postal, phone, email, or Whatsapp report.

The second link directs to a new page with some documents from both the Church, International institutions such as United Nations, and some of the most relevant national laws of Bolivia.

It is from there when one can get some specific information for each of the Roman Catholic dioceses in that country at this page.  

The website of the Paraguayan national conference of bishops, appears at first as accessible, with a link to a national commission appearing first, but the page linked was empty last time I visited it on Sunday, April 21st.

In that regard, even if it is relatively easy to find the link to the commission, and there are some names of bishops associated to the commission the actual linked page at the website is empty.

Something similar could be said of the Peruvian national conference of bishops. There is a bishop in charge of a national commission, but that is all the information available there.

About Central America

I was unable to find relevant information about the response of the Church in most of Central America, except for Costa Rica. The Costa Rican bishops’ website offers phone numbers and e-mail addresses for each of the dioceses in that country, so victims, survivors and people interested in getting in touch with the diocesan representatives in the national body dealing with the issue can do it.

Sadly, Honduras lacks any website at all. And yes, it is an extremely poor country, but archbishop emeritus of Tegucigalpa, Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, used to get public funding for a national TV station, so he is aware of how relevant communication is to achieve goals.

The fact, however, is that Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga was at the center of a scandal when he was accused back in 2017 of covering up the abuse perpetrated by his former auxiliary at the archdiocese, Juan José Pineda Fasquelle, on Honduran seminarians.

This happens, despite the Pope’s explicitly stated interested in addressing the issue, evident in his May 2023 address to the members of Tutela Minorum to change the approach followed by the Church to one branded by Pope Bergoglio himself as inspired by a “spirituality of reparation”.

Although Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama all have websites of their own, there is no way to access relevant information. For Guatemala it is possible to get there the name of the bishop in charge of the so called REPARA commission.

After more than ten clicks on different links in their website I was able to find out that the chair of the REPARA (an acronym that also means repair in Spanish) commission is Mario Alberto Molina Palma, an Augustine who is the archbishop of Los Altos, based in Quetzaltenango, a small city halfway between the border with Tapachula, Mexico (75 kilometers or 50 miles to the West) and Guatemala City, the nation’s capital (110 kilometers or 70 miles to the East).

In this regard, the goal stated by Pope Francis of offering concrete closeness to the victims remains elusive. In some countries, some bishops seem to be aware of the effects and consequences of clergy sexual abuse.

However, large coalitions within the global Roman Catholic hierarchy remain unwilling to change their ways. Unless the national governments as in United States or Australia step in and put pressure on this and other churches and institutions with a history of tolerating sexual abuse, it is clear, almost four years after Pope Francis major reform from 2021, that justice remains elusive and that for many bishops (more than half the Mexican bishops to use a very concrete example from Latin America) even minor gestures as setting up these commissions to prevent abuses are not priorities.