ROME — Chilean bishops began testifying at the local prosecutor’s office this week on charges that they covered up cases of clerical sexual abuse.
Their questioning comes less than a year after every bishop in the country presented their resignation to Pope Francis, who said that many of them were guilty of cover-up and destroying evidence implicating abusive priests.
In all, eight Chilean bishops have been called to testify — some of them on charges that they themselves sexually abused either minors or seminarians.
At least three of them had court appointments this week. One of these, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, requested to postpone a hearing to request his case be dismissed after news broke earlier in the week that the cardinal had allegedly covered up for Father Tito Rivera, who’s been accused of raping an adult male in the Santiago cathedral.
Ezzati and the archdiocese are now being sued by the man for $500,000.
Francis is expected to accept Ezzati’s resignation soon, but sources with knowledge of the situation have told Crux that the pope is working hard to make sure he has the right replacement, and is at the same time not opposed to Ezzati feeling the edge of the sword of Damocles hanging over his head for a bit longer.
Lay people in Santiago and several members of the local clergy, on the other hand, are demanding the pontiff take action now.
One of the cases Ezzati is accused of having covered up is that of Father Óscar Muñoz Toledo, a high-ranking diocesan official, who admitted to having abused some of his nephews early last year.
He’s also accused of having covered up for Father Jorge Laplagne. According to various reports from Chile, the Vatican opened an investigation against the priest in December, but his alleged victim, Javier Molina, says he was never informed and didn’t find out about it until Wednesday.
According to Andrea Idalsoaga, who works for the office in the archdiocese of Santiago that should have informed Molina, it was a “mistake” to “forget” to inform the complainant that an investigation had begun.
“The criminal administrative process is ongoing and we are always available to provide information to the victims, in this particular case we deeply regret that our actions have caused greater pain to Mr. Javier Molina,” she said.
Ezzati’s lawyer asked for the dismissal hearing to be suspended after prosecutors decided to combine the complaints that he covered up for Rivera and Muñoz Toledo.
After the allegations against him became public, Rivera gave an interview saying that he didn’t rape anyone, but did acknowledge his homosexual behavior and added that 50 percent of the clergy in Chile are practicing homosexuals.
Bishop Ramos, challenged by a complainant
A video that has gone viral on Twitter shows Bishop Fernando Ramos, secretary general of the Chilean bishops’ conference and apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Rancagua before he testified for over six hours on Wednesday as a witness.
As he was waiting to go in, he was challenged by a victim of clerical sexual abuse who was also testifying.
“You [all] will pay, you will all pay with prison,” said Jorge Leon. “You should be in prison. You will all be in prison, remember this much! This man, sitting there, is guilty of covering up.”
Ramos, like Ezzati, was questioned regarding the cases of Muñoz Toledo and Laplagne. He didn’t comment on what other cases he was asked about.
A bishop asks for “transparency”
Bishop Galo Fernandez testified on Tuesday, also as a witness for several cases of clerical sexual abuse. The prelate told the media that he thinks it’s important that things are thoroughly investigated “with transparency,” so that “the truth will shine.”
Fernandez is the apostolic administrator of Talca. He was tapped by Francis to replace Horacio Valenzuela, one of four bishops who were mentored by former priest Fernando Karadima, found guilty of sexual manipulation and abuse of power. He was removed from the clerical state last year, after being sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011.
Before testifying, Fernandez said that he was coming in to “collaborate with justice, I do so with full availability to help, so that the investigation moves forth.”
“It seems very important to me that things are correctly investigated, with transparency, with truth,” the bishop added. “I think that it does us good as a Church to have a clarity about events that have happened in order to fully overcome them.”
Asked about Ezzati, he said that the cardinal is being investigated and that, as such, he has the right to request the information that is needed for his defense.
“No place in the priesthood for abusers”
Bishop Fernando Chomali of Concepcion also spoke to the media, but only after being questioned by the prosecutor’s office: “There’s no place in the priesthood for abusers, and we’re following that line,” he said.
“I told him that we have a clear, solemn commitment to seek the truth,” Chomali said of his time with the prosecutor. “We clearly distinguish what is a sin from what is a crime (…). The Holy Father has said it again and again.”
He also said that Catholic priests are not outside of the law: “We are Chileans and, as such, we are beholden to the laws of the country and we are beholden to the truth.”
The bishop of Arica, Moisés Atisha, was also cited on charges of cover-up, but he chose to exercise his right to remain silent.