ROME –Bishop Celestino Aós, the temporary administrator of the Archdiocese of Santiago in Chile, has an uphill battle ahead of him.
On Thursday, his predecessor Cardinal Javier Errazuriz, went before a local prosecutor to testify as a defendant as part of an investigation into the country’s sprawling sex abuse and cover-up scandal.
A civil court just ordered the archdiocese to pay $450,000 to the survivors of the abuse of one priest, after allegedly covering up the crime; Aós has decided not to appeal.
In addition, he doesn’t have a completely clean track record himself when it comes to handling cases of clerical sexual abuse: When he was the promoter of justice in the diocese of Valparaiso, he allegedly mishandled abuse allegations presented by ex-seminarians against five priests in 2012. He single-handedly investigated the allegations against all of them in three months, and deemed the accusations not credible.
Today, one of the priests is out of the priesthood, and some of the others are being re-investigated.
Mauricio Pulgar, a victim of abuse in the seminary of Valparaiso, told Crux last Saturday that when he had to deal with Aós in 2012, the bishop’s treatment was “inhumane,” and claimed that the prelate helped Bishop Gonzalo Duarte cover up the misconduct.
Yet there are some who are open to giving Aós an opportunity to prove himself as a bishop.
Among them is Father Eugenio de la Fuente, who last year came to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis as part of a group of eight men who were in one way or another hurt by former priest Fernando Karadima, the country’s most infamous abusive cleric.
“One can perceive an attitude that is completely different, he’s a simple man, capable of empathy, listening, hearing also things one doesn’t want to hear,” de la Fuente told Crux on Friday. “He has a sensibility capable of understanding the suffering and the pain that the Chilean Church has because of the abuse, he’s closer to the pain of the other person, and this is a reason for hope. His Capuchin formation is palpable,” the priest said.
Regarding the reservations that some have expressed due to Aós’s behavior in Valparaiso, de la Fuente said that what he did, the newly appointed bishop did under the command of Duarte, who was “quickly removed” from the diocese by Francis after Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Father Jordi Bertomeu investigated the local church at the pope’s request last year.
“He was tasked with looking into the cases in Valparaiso, but we don’t know what information he got from Duarte, nor the time frame,” the priest said. “I see Duarte as the person responsible for keeping the information hidden, impeding justice in the many cases of abuse that took place in the San Rafael seminary and in the diocese.”
Duarte is another of the nine Chilean bishops who have been called to testify, but in his case, there are also allegations of abuse of power and conscience with sexual connotations, as he allegedly forced seminarians to give him massages and kisses.
De la Fuente is also one of the priest victims of Karadima who met with Aós on Thursday. After their meeting, the bishop said that the abuse must “never happen again.”
“The truth is that the abuse was unfortunately important in the case of Fernando Karadima, but he wasn’t the only one,” Aós told reporters after the meeting. “Every time that something evil is done, that someone is abused, we have to react to that, and we’re doing so.”
The bishop also said that he had spoken with the priests about the ongoing legal processes, and also about the fact that they must have a “sense of a church in which we’re all responsible for one another,” but they didn’t discuss the ruling in favor of Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo.
Aós insisted on the importance of addressing the abuse crisis as a church: “The task belongs to everyone, it has affected us all, just like when a catastrophe occurs, and we all have to fight so that this pain doesn’t happen again.”
Father Sergio Cobo, one of Karadima’s victims, said that “it’s a joy to be able to meet with him, in a place that was a witness of the pain for so many victims,” referring to the fact that the meeting took place in the parish of El Bosque.
“Being heard by Celestino gives us hope, being able to exchange ideas, and the objective is also to be committed to the work that the bishop will do in the archdiocese, to be able to begin this new phase and owning up for all the pain that there is, repairing it,” Cobo said.
On Friday, the bishop said Mass at Santiago’s Catholic University, after which he met with students and people who’ve made allegations of abuse on the university’s campus. Speaking with archdiocesan employees on the same day, Aós said that his priorities in the archdiocese are clear: “The Gospel. That is my textbook.”
He also announced that he’s planning on going to Rome in the coming weeks to meet with Francis.
Aós took temporary possession of the diocese on Sunday. At the end of the Mass celebrating the occasion, a deacon grabbed a sign from one of the faithful reading “We demand pastors, not patrons.”
The bishop reportedly sent a message to the woman, Elizabeth Vega Garrido, apologizing for the incident and saying that this was not “what we expected to live as a church.”