ROME – According to the latest count by the Chilean national prosecutor’s office, some 221 priests and 8 bishops are being investigated up and down the country on charges of sexual abuse and cover-up, all due to allegations made from the year 2000 to date.
In the total is Fernando Karadima, the country’s most infamous predator priest, who was removed from the clerical state by Pope Francis on Thursday in an “exceptional” decision communicated by the Vatican on Friday, the same day the man who once led an impressive lay movement in Santiago was informed.
Karadima had been found guilty by the Vatican in 2011, but instead of being removed from the priesthood at that time was sentenced to a life of penance and prayer.
To put the ongoing crisis of the Chilean Church in perspective, information gathered in three raids on two dioceses- Rancagua and Santiago- led prosecutor Emiliano Arias to open 70 investigations in the last three months. All of them, according to La Tercera, are against members of the Chilean bishops’ conference who allegedly had knowledge of abuses committed by clerics.
Among the things being investigated, according to these reports, is if these bishops tried to quiet victims so they wouldn’t go to civil authorities.
In a letter he gave to the Chilean bishops in May when he summoned them to Rome, Francis wrote that an investigation by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu had showed mishandling of allegations, because “in not a few cases” grave indications of a crime “were superficially labeled as improbable.”
In late May, every Chilean bishop presented his resignation to Francis, who’s accepted seven of them since and who’s expected to accept more.
Some of the bishops who’ve been removed from office before turning 75, the mandatory age for a bishop to present his resignation to the pope, are among the eight being investigated by the prosecutor’s office.
According to Francis, Scicluna and Bertomeu also found that alleged crimes were investigated too late, if at all, and in other cases there was a “very grave negligence in the protection of children” by bishops and religious superiors.
One of these cases is that of Cristian Precht, who twice was found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors. The first time, following a decision made by Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati and contradicting his own judicial vicar who wanted a life sentence, Precht was suspended from ministry for five years and then readmitted in 2017.
Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Santiago, led by Ezzati, announced that Francis had decreed, “with no possibility of appeal,” the “removal from clerical state ex officio et pro bono Ecclesiae” of Precht.
A hero for many within the Chilean Church for confronting the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Precht to this day remains a divisive figure, and despite the evidence against him, there are those in Chile who defend him and who accuse Francis of being part of a vendetta against a more “liberal” faction of the Church.
Among these are Precht’s legal team, with his lawyer, Luciano Fouillioux, claiming that the canonical process against the former priest is a “criminal act against a historic member where he’s been denied the right to defend himself after the years that he spent defending other Chileans.”
And that is the crux of the matter for many: Precht spent decades waving the flag of human rights, and, according to a Chilean source, many today struggle to reconcile the man who saved many from Pinochet with the “sexual predator” who abused three minors in a school run by the Marist Brothers in Santiago, and many more in other places- both minors and adults- according to the original allegations, which led to him being suspended in 2012.
Yet it was the claims made by three Marist victims who came forward last year that sealed Precht’s fate, and, for at least one of them, there was no foul play involved.
“For us, the trial was transparent,” said Jaime Concha, who was abused by Precht when he was 15. Precht was the fifth abuser, between priests and brothers, who he said “crucified” him since he was 10.
“Our tale is very clear … We have spoken and told the same story wherever we’ve been,” he told Crux over the phone on Thursday. This includes the Holy See’s Embassy in Chile, Scicluna and Bertomeu, and the sexual crimes unit of Chile’s police force.
“The testimony leaves no room for doubt,” he said.
Francis’s decision to remove not only Precht, but also Karadima, from the priesthood is seen by some as things coming “full circle,” and a Chilean source described it to Crux as a way of clearing any doubt that abuse is “ubiquitous” and does not discriminate when it comes to ideology.
Father Samuel Fernandez, who once upon a time belonged to Karadima’s El Bosque parish, told Crux that the decision announced by the Vatican to remove his former mentor from the priesthood was “the right one because of the seriousness of his crimes,” yet he also approved of the fact that it has taken this long.
“With Karadima remaining in the priesthood, the Church was allowed to ban him from seeing the faithful from his parish,” Fernandez said over the phone on Friday. “Allowing for these years to pass has meant that many of those who would have been manipulated by Karadima have been freed from his influence. Psychological manipulation is something he’s very good at.”
Maria Paz Lagos, President of Catholic Voices Chile, told Crux that Karadima’s removal from the priesthood was something “we had been waiting for.”
Yet she also acknowledged that it was a “setting the scales right, or a touché,” with what happened with Precht a few weeks ago and which had angered a sector of the Chilean Church, that didn’t understand why Karadima hadn’t received the same punishment.
Karadima supporters, meanwhile, objected that he’d originally been sentenced to life and Precht to a five-year suspension.
Lagos was in Rome this week participating at a seminar organized by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. On Wednesday, the group met with Francis at the end of his weekly general audience, and she had the chance to be close to him and ask him to keep Chile close to his heart and also to appoint a new archbishop for Santiago.
A recording of the exchange shows Francis saying, “My daughter, I haven’t found the right person yet.”
Bound for home on Saturday, Lagos said she’s leaving the Eternal City “happy, knowing that the pope continues to have Chile in his heart.”