Chile’s new leader warns bishops of legacy of abuse scandals

ROME — Gabriel Boric, the charismatic former student activist who took over as president of Chile last December and is now the world’s second-youngest head of state, marked the end of his first week in office on Friday.

There’s at least one group in Chile with clear warning that there’s a new sheriff in town — the country’s Catholic bishops, who have presided over Latin America’s most massive clerical abuse crisis.

On Saturday, after his inauguration and in keeping with tradition, Boric took part in an ecumenical prayer service held in Santiago Cathedral and led by Spanish-born Cardinal Celestino Aos, himself still relatively new.

The president was once again in the spotlight on Sunday for the conclusion of his installation, and the 36-year-old left-wing politician gave a hint of what his relationship with the bishops will be like over the next four years.

“There is something that bothered me yesterday to see in the cathedral. It bothered me to see Mr. [Cardinal Ricardo] Ezzati. It bothered me to see people who acted to cover up serious crimes against children.

By using the word “people,” Boric also appeared to refer to retired Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, who had served on Pope Francis’ council of cardinals until 2018, when his term was not renewed. (The term of fellow papal adviser, Australian Cardinal George Pell, was also not renewed after he left Rome to face historical sex abuse allegations, although he was later acquitted).

Never one to accept the accusations, Errazuriz fired back at the new leader in an interview with local media The Segunda.

‘Even presidents of the Republic can make mistakes,’ he said, insisting he was not offended by the new president’s words but offering a vigorous defense of the Church’s actions Chilean woman to her most infamous abusive priest, the late Father Fernando Karadima.

“Apparently, Mr. Gabriel Boric does not know everything we have done to find out about Karadima’s abuses, which have been covered up by many of his followers, the trial we have opened against him, the lifting of the statute of limitations and the sentence imposed on him by the Vatican, removing him from the priesthood,” Errázuriz said.

Chile’s new President Gabriel Boric waves after his swearing-in ceremony to Congress in Valparaiso, Chile, Friday, March 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In fact, the first charge against Karadima – who died in 2020, a year after being defrocked – was brought in 2003, and whether an investigation was carried out – to date it is unclear what happened – Karadima suffered no consequences. It was only when three survivors, including one who is now a member of the papal commission for the protection of minors, went public with allegations years later that a full investigation had taken place.

Karadima was found guilty and removed from office in 2011. Seven years later, he was actually removed from his position as a priest.

Some observers might be tempted to dismiss Boric’s comments as fairly routine political rhetoric, reducing them to flippant remarks by a leftist politician whose governing coalition includes the Chilean Communist Party.

However, many pundits believe Boric was doing more than just playing his base. By calling the presence of Ezzati and Errázuriz, he was inadvertently asking a question that has gone unanswered by both the Vatican and the Chilean judicial system.

To fully understand the context, we have to go back to 2018/2019, when following a series of reports that for decades the Chilean clergy had abused minors and that bishops had covered up the crimes, Pope Francis purged the conference in forcing a massive resignation. . Thirty percent of the Chilean episcopate was removed from office within 12 months.

Three years later, however, the wounds are still fresh, in part because too many questions remain unanswered. For example, no specific explanation was given as to why some bishops under the age of 75 – the mandatory age for a prelate to submit his resignation – were removed from office. And several prelates over the age of 75 were also put out to pasture with question marks hanging over their heads. People wondered if they had been abusers, covered it up, or if something else was going on.

At least one bishop has faced accusations from former seminarians who claimed he sexually abused them. The case of Bishop Juan Barros, a former bishop in the Chilean army, has drawn attention. He was transferred by Francis in 2015 to the southern diocese of Osorno. However, when the decision was announced, three of Karadima’s survivors publicly accused Barros of covering up for the abusive priest, who happened to be his mentor. (He is just one of four bishops who have been accused of doing so).

Francis stood by his decision and later publicly defended Barros during his trip to Chile in 2018. Yet upon his return to the Eternal City, he dispatched two trusted advisers to investigate the allegations. The 2,300-page report they compiled led the pope to summon the entire Chilean episcopate to Rome, where the prelates tendered their resignations en masse. Francis also met with survivors and publicly apologized to them, acknowledging that he had been “part of the problem” in handling the country’s abuse crisis.

On the canonical side, several abusers have been removed from the priesthood, including Karadima. Yet the bishops and cardinals who have been the subject of allegations have been dismissed from their positions but not from the ministry and remain in limbo: their names have been tainted with suspicion but they are free to do what they want, including attending events like the one on Saturday.

On the civilian side, forced in part by the relentless actions of the survivors who found a platform in the national and international media, a series of investigations were launched. Cardinals and bishops have been called to testify, but to date very few priests have actually been convicted, and there has been no follow-up to the cover-up allegations.

Arguably, one of the few tangible results of the crisis was former President Sebastian Pinera lifting the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse in 2019, although it was not retroactive.

Abuse victims have long accused Errazuriz of covering up Karadima and others, and when Francis accepted his resignation in 2019, Ezzati was facing an abuse cover-up investigation by civil authorities. However, for almost three years now, the prosecution has said nothing about the investigation, and it seems to have stalled.

As a footnote, the prosecutor who originally handled many of the cases against the church was removed from the investigation following a long series of leaks.

Although bishops like Errazuriz and Ezzati were condemned by the court of public opinion, neither the Vatican nor the Chilean justice condemned them. The opening salvo from Chile’s new leader, however, suggests that the battle has only just begun.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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