SANTIAGO, Chile — A recently signed agreement between the Catholic Church in Chile and the local prosecutor’s office has caused uproar, with critics charging that it unduly provides protections and privileges to the Church.
The agreement was signed on Tuesday by the national prosecutor, Jorge Abbott, and the secretary general of the Chilean bishops’ conference, Bishop Fernando Ramos, who’s one of ten bishops called to testify facing allegations of having covered up cases of abuse.
The “Collaborative Framework Agreement with the Public Prosecutor’s Office” signed this week seeks to promote the exchange of information between the Church and the prosecutor regarding allegations and investigations of sexual crimes committed by clerics, protecting the confidentiality of whistleblowers who request it and respecting current legislation.
“The present agreement is founded and sustained by good faith that all sides declare and commit to sustain,” says the text, which asserts that interaction between the Catholic Church and the prosecutor’s office from now on will be “amicable” and carried out through direct negotiations.
It also says that the prosecutor’s office will keep the Church up-to-date on all of its investigations, something that has particularly irked survivors of clerical sexual abuse as typically they aren’t kept in the loop about either civil or canonical investigations after they come forward with an allegation.
The Catholic Church in Chile is facing an unprecedented crisis, comparable to that of the United States in 2002 when the Boston scandals were uncovered by the Boston Globe, and Ireland that led Pope Benedict XVI to write a letter to the country in 2009.
After a slow start in understanding the scope of the crisis, Pope Francis last year made a 180-degree turn, accepting the resignations of eight bishops and so far not creating new ones on the grounds that it’s difficult to identify suitable candidates.
The local prosecutor’s office has 166 ongoing investigations against the Church, involving 221 people and 248 victims of sexual abuse, at least 131 of whom were children at the time they were molested.
Of the 221 people being investigated, 152 are priests, 10 are bishops (including two cardinals) nine are deacons, 15 lay people, and the rest members of religious orders and congregations but who are not members of the clergy- religious sisters and brothers.
Jaime Concha, a medical doctor who said he was sexually abused while he was a student in a school run by the Marist brothers, told Crux that the signing of the agreement between the prosecutors and the Church is “barbaric.”
“The national prosecutor is exceeding his faculties,” Concha said. “Furthermore, it’s a communications disaster. How can he associate himself with an organization accused of systemic cover-up in causes that are still open?”
The signing of the agreement, he said on Friday, re-victimizes all those who’ve been victims of ecclesiastical abuse.
According to Concha, the agreement is “illegal and immoral,” damaging victims, their families, the Chilean people, the justice system and the prosecutor’s office itself.
“What at the beginning might have been moved by good intentions has done nothing but reinforce the sensation of impunity when facing abuse of power, of conscience, and sexual abuses committed and covered up by members of the Church,” the survivor said.
Concha is not the only survivor of clerical sexual abuse appalled by the agreement. Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo, three survivors of abusive former priest Fernando Karadima, have all spoken against it.
Hamilton and Murillo, who live in Chile, met with Abbott on Friday. After the meeting was over, the prosecutor agreed to revise the document signed.
On Twitter, Hamilton said it’s a mistake to agree that the Church will cooperate, “taking for granted that they will behave accordingly when that’s precisely what needs to be investigated, that they don’t act as they should.”
Ramos, head of the bishops’ conference, has been subpoenaed himself on charges of cover-up. He answered the criticism in a statement released on Friday.
“The agreement says [that] our commitment is to give the information we have,” he said. “As a matter of fact, the prosecutor’s office has said in these days that in the past months they’ve received through Church organisms 50 cases and we have the widest availability to continue to cooperate.”
“We too want to be a part of the prosecution of these crimes,” Ramos said.
According to the Chilean paper La Tercera, the national prosecutor signed the agreement with the Church eight days after he received a warning from a local prosecutor, Emiliano Arias, who’s the one leading most of the investigations against the Church, that he was going to “formalize” allegations against several bishops on charges of both abuse and of cover-up.
Though most of the bishops under investigation have been accused of failing to act according to the law, at least one of them, Gonzalo Duarte, former bishop of Valparaiso, also has been publicly accused of improper sexual behavior with seminarians.
Speaking to Abbott, the national prosecutor, Cruz, one of the most outspoken Chilean survivors, said, “You have betrayed all the hope that we had, Don Jorge. I’m sad, and it’s truly clear that I’m very angry.”
“You have betrayed many people, and I will not stop until you resign, so that someone who actually cares for the victims takes over,” Cruz said. “[Someone] who won’t sell and betray them, handing them over to the aggressors. That how I feel, Don Jorge, because this is what you have done.”