New revelations on sex abuse hit Chilean Church

By Inés San Martín
August 15, 2019

People light candles during an Aug. 20 vigil to protest sexual abuse in the Chilean Catholic Church outside the Santiago cathedral.
Photo by Ivan Alvarado

Just when you thought the situation in the Catholic Church couldn’t get worse, new allegations of clerical abuse and its cover-up have hit the press.

It has also become clear that the crimes committed by one of Chile’s once most-beloved priests exceeded what was originally thought.

Last year, Pope Francis made a 180-degree turn concerning the sex abuse crisis in Chile. After originally defending a suspected bishop and accusing sexual abuse victims of “calumnies,” he changed his mind after an investigation and accepted the resignation of several prelates, including the one whose appointment caused the original uproar.

The pontiff apologized to the local church for the mistakes he’d made due to “wrongful information,” and removed from the clerical state two of the nation’s once most influential priests, Fernando Karadima and Cristian Precht, both from Santiago, Chile’s capital.

Both former priests had long been accused of abuse and fallen into disgrace when the extent of their crimes became more well-known.

Karadima had been banned by the Vatican from publicly exercising ministry in 2011 and Precht had been - without explanation - suspended from ministry for five years by the then-archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati. However, he was later temporarily reinstated until new allegations surfaced.

Karadima had been a prominent spiritual director with close ties to the elite of Chilean society, while Precht had been active in the human rights movement during Chile’s military dictatorship.

The Jesuits, in the eye of the storm

In recent months, the third most influential Catholic priest in Santiago’s modern history, the late Jesuit Father Renato Poblete, a Jesuit, fell from his pedestal.

Poblete, who died in 2010, was noted for his work with the poorest of the poor, and was considered by many as the successor of St. Alberto Hurtado, also a Jesuit.

Poblete is accused of sexually abusing 22 women, forcing at least one to have several abortions. Four of the women he allegedly abused were minors. One of them was a three-year-old when the abuse began; she was a daughter of one of the other women he abused.

The information comes from a study into Poblete ordered by the local Jesuit province. Earlier this month, they released some of the material gathered by lawyer Waldo Bown during his investigation into the allegations.

Chilean newspaper La Tercera obtained a copy of the report and published many key elements that had not been previously published by the Jesuits, leading several lay people in Chile to question the desire for transparency from the religious order.

The newspaper revealed that the report claimed at least 15 Jesuit priests knew about the abuses committed by Poblete.

Bown also said he found “practices of a cultural nature of the Society of Jesus,” that include “pride” and “a strong hierarchical obedience regarding institutional decisions.”

“Dissonant information is read as a threat to the institution and, in the case of the news and rumors about Poblete, they tended to ignore them in order to maintain their institutional reputation and not damage their prestige,” Bown’s report said.

The abuse began in 1956, soon after Poblete was ordained a priest, and the last reported instance happened in 2008, when he was 82 years old.

The youngest victim was 3, and the oldest 44. Some of the women were mothers, others the daughters of the women he’d already abused. He is accused of molesting sisters in the same family, and of abusing at least one nun. Almost all of the victims were uneducated or economically vulnerable.

He had longstanding and abusive relationships with six women, and according to the Bown report, another 26 women - some dead, others refusing to testify - were identified as possible victims.

According to La Tercera, the lawyer established that Poblete’s public image was a façade, hiding a fierce capacity for violence, with which he used to attack his victims with an “unexpected and violent sexual approach.”

As Chilean civil society struggled to come to terms with the extent of the abuses, Jesuit Father Juan Cristobal Beytia told Cooperativa that it’s “unacceptable” that a newspaper got the report, and he claimed the prosecutor’s office had leaked it: “I can assure you that it was no one from the Society of Jesus.”

“If the Society of Jesus could say something to the prosecutors it would be that the office has to give further guarantees to citizens,” he said. “I mean, the prosecutor’s office today has more holes than a Swiss cheese.”

Regarding the accusations that the Jesuits covered up for Poblete, Beytia said that the justice system has to determine if this was the case.

Down south, a papal envoy faces prison for investigating abuse

Meanwhile in Montt, a port city in southern Chile’s Lake District, a priest presented a “criminal complaint for four serious crimes of injury” against Pope Francis’s appointed apostolic administrator, who’s investigating him for credible allegations of sexual abuse.

In the criminal complaint, Father Luis Dionisio Muñoz Aro said “the social, religious and professional context” in which “a scandal related to a sexual abuse of a minor is carried out, is a serious damage, not only for my honor and name, but also for the community of parishioners.”

He is asking for a three-year jail sentence and the payment of significant financial compensation from Father Ricardo Morales Galindo, the apostolic administrator.

In statements to the press, Morales pointed out that “justice must take its course” and ruled out any intention to hurt Muñoz. He also said that what the archdiocese did was to follow the guidelines mandated by the bishops’ conference of informing civil society when an investigation against a priest is initiated.

Morales was appointed by Francis as apostolic administrator of Puerto Montt in June of last year, to replace Archbishop Cristian Caro, who was 75, the mandatory age for retirement.

Caro had long been accused of covering up clerical sexual abuse.

Morales’s mission in Puerto Montt hasn’t been an easy one: He’s opened investigations into at least five local priests accused of either sexual abuse or financial irregularities. Last December, a group of lay people physically attacked him after he started an investigation of two priests for misappropriation of funds and drug distribution. In February, one of the priests being investigated committed suicide.

So far, Francis has accepted the resignation of nine Chilean bishops, but has only replaced one, appointing apostolic administrators to temporarily govern in the other cases.

Earlier this year, he appointed two new auxiliary bishops to Santiago, but one had to resign before being ordained because he managed to enrage clerical abuse survivors in an interview.

Survivors and the Catholic university join forces

Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University and the Fundacion para la Confianza (Foundation for Trust), run by three of Karadima’s survivors, officially announced on Wednesday the creation of a Center of Investigation of Abuse and Early Intervention.

Present at its introduction were Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo, Karadima victims who met with the pope in the Vatican last year.

Speaking with El Mercurio, Hamilton said that “it’s necessary to reestablish trust, you cannot spend your whole life in opposition. With a stance of complete mistrust, you cannot generalize a wrong.”

“It’s key to have solid, interdisciplinary knowledge; to take a step towards reparation and prevention of abuse, both in the family environment, where 70 or 80 percent of abuses take place, and in that of institutions and religions,” Hamilton said.

He noted that the foundation has given support to sex abuse victims, while the center will help create social and political changes, because there are still people who have an “outdated understanding” of abuse of power and chauvinistic attitudes, and a solid scientific information is necessary to fight these attitudes.

Francis sent a video to the presentation, thanking those behind it for their effort to prevent every kind of “abuse, manipulation … that can in some way destroy the heart of a child.”


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