Part One: Latin America’s biggest Catholic stories of 2020

Not only were many situations in Latin America not put on pause by COVID-19 during 2020, they were actually exacerbated by the virus.

[Editor’s note: This is part one of two-part series.]

ROSARIO, Argentina — Even though 2020 will be remembered by many as the year in which the world stood still trying to face a tiny and invisible new challenge, the truth is the earth did not stop spinning on its axis. Not only were many situations not put on pause by COVID-19, but they were actually exacerbated by the virus.

The list of stories unrelated to the coronavirus for the Catholic Church in Latin America over the past year is long, but here’s a “top four” rundown of major issues for which 2020 was an inflection point, even if they’ll still be relevant in years to come.

We’ll treat the first two today, and the others in the second installment of this series.

Abortion

Though for some it might seem like a lost battle, Pope Francis’ Argentina is not ready to give up the fight when it comes to preventing an expansion of abortion rights. A bill to make abortion widely and freely available was expected back in March, but due to the pandemic, President Alberto Fernandez delayed its presentation to Congress until November.

From there it was a speedy affair, with hopes to have the bill become law before the end of the year — more precisely, during the Christmas octave. There’s still doubt, as the president doesn’t have the votes he needs in the Senate, but it might be debated Dec. 29 and voted on at the crack of dawn the next day.

A similar bill was debated and rejected back in 2018, and Fernandez had promised during his 2019 campaign to try for it again. Pro-lifers, identified with the light-blue color, have been rallying non-stop since he presented the bill, trying to back legislators who are against it.

According to a recent poll, less than 30 percent of the country actually wants abortion to be legal in every circumstance, up to week 14. Even after that point, abortion would be legal if it can be determined the baby has Down Syndrome or another pathology which, for some, makes those babies unwanted.

Catholics and Evangelicals have joined forces to reject the bill, both at a hierarchical level and at the grassroots. Days of prayer and fasting were called for, Masses celebrated and two clerics spoke before Congress: Father José María “Pepe” di Paola and Bishop Gustavo Carrara, both from Buenos Aires and members of the group of “slum priests” who live and minister in the shanty towns of Francis’ former archdiocese. Their aim was to give a voice to women who live in poverty and who are often presented as the beneficiaries of this bill, despite the fact that polls show they widely reject it.

Pope Francis involved himself in the debate too, addressing it openly three times, through letters sent to Di Paola, the women of the shanty towns who’d asked for him to be their voice, and a group of former students.

In his references to the issue, the pope reminded the government that when the pandemic began back in March, it insisted on being an administration that listened to science, allegedly in opposition to the one led by former conservative President Mauricio Macri.

Francis argued that abortion is not a religious issue, but a scientific one, and that biological science has demonstrated that life begins at conception.

Alver Metalli, an Italian journalist in Buenos Aires and close to Di Paola, argued that Fernandez is mistaken if he thinks the pope will “forget” the expansion of abortion and that, sooner or later, the church will again focus on what they have in common with the center-left government and provide a helping hand during next year’s mid-term elections.

In reality, Macri points out, the pope had spats with Macri over both abortion and gay marriage, and Macri was actually opposed to abortion, while Fernandez presents himself as a Catholic who doesn’t believe abortion is a sin.

Some in the pro-life movement believe the push for wider legalization of abortion by Fernandes is a dictionary-definition example of what Francis likes to call “ideological colonization,” linking it to a loan currently being negotiated between Argentina and the International Monetary Fund.

Many observers believe the legalization of abortion in Argentina could have a domino effect across the rest of the region.

They point out that Argentina is still seen by many as a stronghold of the pro-life movement, and if it were to fall, other countries would soon follow. This is why, these observers have noted, organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch invest tens of thousands of dollars in the campaign to make abortion legal in “in the pope’s country.”

Clerical sexual abuse

Earlier this month, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission promised to defend victims of clerical sexual abuse, with cases being reported in at least 19 countries.

In a hearing held via Zoom due to the pandemic, the commission’s Vice President, Flavia Piovesan, told victims and survivors “you have our firm and absolute commitment to be a part of this cause.”

The charge made by survivors and advocates is that to date, the Catholic Church throughout the region continues to fail when it comes to addressing clerical sexual abuse as new accusations are made weekly in one country or the other, both of abuse and of cover up.

Few countries in the world have seen the abuse crisis explode like Chile, where, in 2018, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of 30 percent of the bishops conference under accusations of either abuse or cover up. Yet to date, most Chilean victims say they don’t have closure, either because the Vatican hasn’t ruled on their cases or because it has, but no explanation was given for the outcome. It’s unclear, for instance, if the Holy See plans on sanctioning any of the bishops whose resignations were accepted.

Adalberto Méndez, legal coordinator for the advocacy group Ending Clerical Abuse, presented a series of cases to the commission to illustrate the way individual governments have helped cover up the crimes, failed to protect victims or help them get justice.

RELATED: Ex-archbishop in Chile dies before facing trial for sex abuse

“The Inter-American Human Rights Commission recognized the range of rights that have been violated, as a consequence of government covering up clerical sex abuse of children,” Méndez said.

During the audience, the advocacy group presented the commission with a report: “Responsibility of the States in the Americas with regard to the Impunity of Sexual Abuse of Children and Adolescents in Religious Institutions.”

On Nov. 20, 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, that 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.

2020 did see many efforts to address the crisis, from helping survivors to finding the root causes of abuse in Latin America, a region where clericalism has seeped deep.

One of the people leading that effort is Father Daniel Portillo, from Mexico, founder and head of Ceprome, the center for child protection of Mexico’s pontifical university. He’s organized dozens of seminars and zoom meetings to continue the formation of both lay ministers, priests and bishops on prevention and how to best act when new allegations arise.

Portillo is a man who is not afraid to speak truth to power when it comes to acknowledging that there are countries in Latin America where the Catholic Church is “doing nothing,” to address abuse. He’s also the man who was standing next to Pope Francis when he recorded a video claiming that there are those who will threaten those who try to protect children from clerical abuse.

Many observers believe the abuse crisis in Mexico, home to abusive Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ who died sanctioned to a life of penitence and prayer after being found guilty of abuse, is even worse than the one in Chile. For this reason, Pope Francis was ready to dispatch Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, the two men tapped in 2018 to look into the Chilean case, to review the situation of Mexico in early March.

However, with the COVID-19 crisis dominating life in Italy soon after it was announced, the visit was postponed indefinitely.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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