A children’s rights group is warning that a “Third Wave” of clerical sex abuse scandals is hitting Latin America, with revelations showing how the Catholic Church has continued to try and hide the extent of the crisis.

The London-based Child Rights International Network (CRIN) released The Third Wave: Justice for survivors of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Latin America on Nov. 20. It looks at the scale of abuse and cover-up by the Church in every Latin American country, as well as reviewing whether national laws on child sex crimes adequately protect children.

CRIN says the first wave of abuse scandals took place in Ireland and North America, with the second taking place in Oceania and continental Europe.

“There is a growing global wave of demands for accountability of the Catholic Church for the sexual abuse of children, especially now in more Catholic majority countries,” said Leo Ratledge, CRIN’s legal and policy director.

The report says the Catholic Church in Latin America has systematically tried to suppress abuse complaints and scandals in a number of ways that will seem familiar to many U.S. Catholics who lived through the clerical abuse crisis of the past 20 years.

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These include transferring abusive priests from one parish or country to another – a practice that CRIN says continues to this day; offering secret payments to victims and their families in exchange for their silence; blaming victims and their families for the abuse and undermining the credibility of victims; manipulating victims psychologically so that they do not take legal action; and pressuring the media not to report on the issue.

Clerical abuse has started to be more widely known in the region, most prominently in Chile, where the case of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno – accused of covering up the abuse of now-former priest Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious clerical child abuser – dominated headlines during Pope Francis’s visit to the country in January 2018.

The case came to the attention of the press thanks to the courage of survivors, who protested the appointment of Barros to Osorno.

Ratledge said the lobbying efforts of clergy abuse survivors has put Latin American governments under pressure “to respond to the systemic abuse of children and its cover-up in the Church, rather than wait for the institution to reform itself.”

CRIN noted that only a small number of cases of clergy sexual abuse have come to light in countries such as Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Honduras, and pointed to the fact that there has been no investigative journalism on the issue, as has been the case in Argentina, Costa Rica and Paraguay.

The report noted that after high-profile abuse cases appear in the media, it leads to an increase in the number of survivors willing to report what happened to them to the authorities.

“These revelations began to shatter a prevailing taboo across Latin America around sexual abuse, but also with regard to public attitudes towards the Catholic Church. Soon the first survivors groups formed in the region and began campaigning for accountability and redress against a religious institution whose reputation, until then, had remained largely intact. At a national level, the most active groups in Latin America are the Argentinian and Chilean Networks of Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, which offer advice and support to those who have suffered abuse in the Church and lobby their respective governments to take concrete action to improve church accountability and victims’ access to justice,” the report says.

Other issues highlighted in the 66-page document include:

— Official data on the issue does not exist in most countries in the region. In some, the only statistics available are those released by the Catholic Church (in Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Uruguay).

— The earliest reports of abuse emerged as recently as 2002, with some countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia) seeing a sharp rise since 2017. However, total numbers, relative to countries outside of Latin America, are still low. There have been convictions of abusive priests in every country examined, but these are still rare.

—  Only six countries – out of the 19 examined – have abolished statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. In ten jurisdictions, limitation periods do not begin to run until a child reaches 18. In three of these countries, the limitation period does not start running until a person reports the offence.

— While most countries criminalize the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, some offer unequal protection to children depending upon circumstances. Examples include teenage rape victims having to prove that force or threats were used, while younger victims are not required to; and perpetrators in some cases being able to evade prosecution if they go on to marry their victim.

— Criminal law in Argentina, Mexico and Peru recognizes the abuse of a position of power as a specific element of an offence or an exacerbating factor leading to an increased sentence. These countries’ laws explicitly identify religious ministers or having a religious relationship with a child as examples.

CRIN recommended one major element to help bring accountability to the Church in the region: State-sponsored public inquiries into child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

The children’s rights organization noted that no Latin American country has held a public inquiry into the clerical abuse crisis, as has happened in several other countries in Europe, North America, and Oceania. The organizations said these inquiries can establish the factual truth on the extent of abuse; set out steps for government and institutions to improve child protection law, policy and practice; and also lead to  the creation of redress schemes which offer compensation and counselling to survivors of abuse.

The report noted that the idea is not foreign to Latin America, since more than a dozen countries in the region have established national truth and reconciliation commissions to investigate past human rights violations during periods of conflict or authoritarian rule in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

“These inquiry commissions arose in very different contexts to those on child abuse, but in both cases they have been used as a tool to respond to largescale, systematic human rights abuses and their objectives are very much the same: truth, accountability and reparations,” the report says.

Ecuadoran Sara Oviedo, the former Vice-Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and a founding member of the international survivors’ organization Ending Clergy Abuse – Global Justice Project, praised the CRIN report.

She said it will help in the goal of “getting the Catholic Church to hand sex offenders over to the justice system, to be held accountable for continuing its cover-ups, and uphold the rights of victims of sexual abuse, as we’ve demanded countless times.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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