Editor’s note: this is the first of a series of articles by Crux’s Rome Bureau Chief Ines San Martin on the situation of the Chilean Church.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Though it’s been diminishing for a while, more so in some places than others, the influence of the Catholic Church across Latin America is still undeniable. Chile is no exception, especially given that the Church here was at the forefront of the defense of human rights during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The Church’s standing in Chile right now, however, is taking a historic beating.

According to the latest poll by the International Social Survey Program, the credibility of the Church among Chileans is today at a historic low, going from 51 percent of trust in 1998 to 13 percent in October 2018.

In May of last year, Pope Francis diagnosed part of the problem: a culture of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up.

According to Joaquin Silva, a lay man  and Dean of the Faculty of Theology of Chile’s Catholic University, the Chilean Church today is in “shock” and cannot overcome its “perplexity” over the pope’s diagnosis.

“As a consequence, the necessary changes, the [pope’s] call to conversion and renovation, doesn’t take the shape of a concrete restructuring of the hierarchy, the ecclesial configuration and the understanding of the priesthood as a ministry,” he told Crux.

On the contrary, Silva said, the shock has led the Church to simply enact some “legal and protocol changes” which, even though they were necessary, don’t address the heart of the problem.

“People don’t commit crimes because we don’t know what’s good and what’s bad, or because we don’t have a protocol in place when a person abuses a minor,” Silva argued. “It takes time to assume the gravity of the problem of clerical sexual abuse, and it’s not only the abuses themselves – the problem of the Church in Chile is much deeper.”

Among the roots of the problem, Silva said, is the way members of the Church interact with one another, the Church’s understanding of society and the Church’s relationship with money, all of which, Silva noted, are also problems of the universal Church.

According to investigative journalist Mónica Gonzalez, who played a key role in the revelations of the crimes of former priest Fernando Karadima, the Chilean Church is having a hard time recognizing the role it played in perpetuating a culture of abuse, due in part to its actions on other fronts.

She’s the co-author of the book The Secrets of the Karadima Empire.

Gonzalez, who left the Catholic Church when she was 14 years old after her father’s death, had a close relationship with many priests, including now-laicized Cristian Precht, once the director of an institution called the “Vicariate of Solidarity.”

Set up by Pope Paul VI in 1976 to stop the abduction and ill treatment of Chilean citizens by the government of Pinochet, the Vicariate was dismantled in 1992 after the dictator’s fall.

Initiatives such as the vicariate, Gonzalez argued in an interview with Crux, make the society’s disappointment with the institution even bigger.

Precht, like Karadima, was removed from the priesthood by Francis last year, after both were found guilty of sexually abusing minors as well as abuses of conscience and power.

RELATED: Pope removes notorious Chilean abuser from the priesthood

Gonzalez’s investigation, which she did with two other journalists, led to evidence of Karadima using money donated for charity to buy apartments where he put his victims. Initially, many of those who donated the money refused to believe the allegations.

“Karadima was the priest of Chile’s elite, and the way to get to them is through their wallet,” the journalist said.

A journalist during the Pinochet years, Gonzalez said she knew two things very well: The army and the Catholic Church, as they were on opposite sides of the streets. Her first look into the allegations, she said, led to the conclusion that Karadima controlled 25 percent of the Chilean bishops’ conference and not a small number of Santiago’s most popular parishes.

Four of Karadima’s closest priestly aids had been appointed bishops, one of whom continues in ministry. The uproar caused by the controversial transfer of another, Bishop Juan Barros, to the southern diocese of Osorno in 2015, is what led the pontiff to take a closer look into the Chilean Church.

“I will never stop being thankful to the Catholic Church for its courage during the Pinochet years, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a mafia feeling to it all, with perverted priests who were protected by the establishment because they hid behind good actions,” she said.

Despite her frustrations with the Catholic Church, and there are plenty, Gonzalez acknowledges that at the end of the day, it’s a “necessary evil,” and says it would be much less evil if it was able to clean itself up. She doubts it will happen, however, because, she said, even though there are many priests who did nothing wrong, they’re “complicit” in the wrongdoings of others.

A Chilean priest, speaking with Crux on background, said that the Church in Santiago needs to “bury an entire generation of priests” before it’ll be ready to confront the damage done by Karadima, Precht, and many others, including famed Jesuit Father Renato Poblete.

“Even if they didn’t necessarily get along with one another, they had a deep influence in the formation of many priests in Santiago, who are hurt by what’s happened, who were hurt by them, and who have in time, hurt one another,” the priest said, noting that many of those in the clergy today were both victims and victimizers.

“I’m very concerned by the fact that the Church today is weak, paralyzed, without strength,” Gonzalez said. “People who are used to having a system but orphaned, become a green pasture for populists such as Jair Bolsonaro [right-wing president of Brazil] and the Kirchners [Nestor and Cristina, former presidents of Argentina].”

“I have many good friends who are priests, and they are destroyed, without a voice, because they don’t see an attitude on the part of the Vatican and the local hierarchy of letting heads roll, no matter how many,” she said. “If the priests feel abandoned, imagine how alone the faithful are.”

Silva believes that the crisis can be partially understood as an “absence of God” in the life of the Church: “We’ve lost our center, that must be Jesus and the Gospel. When that’s gone, what moves us?”

He said he’s heard members of the Chilean hierarchy say Francis “overreacted” when he accused the local church of having a culture of cover-up, but he’s inclined to agree with the Argentine pontiff.

“It’s shown an inability to diagnose the crisis,” Silva said. “Out of fear, because of what the call to change implies for all of us. The Church is clear: we’re called to a permanent pastoral conversion, but where is this conversion?”

In the past 20 years, the Chilean Church has lost most of its credibility, Silva said, and it’s “unfair” to put all the blame on secularization and the evils of the modern world.

“We have to take ownership of our Christian existence, and frankly search what we need to change,” Silva said, pointing to a synod recently announced by the German bishops’ conference to evaluate power, the priesthood and sexual morality.