ROME – Fernando Karadima, who was once one of Chile’s most popular priests and then the country’s most infamous sexual predator, died on July 26 at the age of 90, a decade after being found guilty of abusing minors and three years after being removed from the priesthood.
In 2011, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found him guilty of sexual abuse. He was condemned to a life of penitence and prayer. A year later, Chile’s justice system acknowledged the crimes, but he was never tried civilly due to the statute of limitations.
Karadima had been living in the Hogar San Juan de Dios, an old people’s home, though he died in a local hospital after being admitted some weeks before.
In 2018, Pope Francis made the “exceptional” decision to remove him from the priesthood. A Vatican statement released at the time said the decision was made “in conscience and for the good of the Church.”
Born in 1930, this man who became a spiritual father for many young men of Santiago’s wealthy social elite was accused of sexually abusing boys as early as 1984. Yet with deep connections both in Chile’s military regime of and in the Vatican after forging a friendship with the then papal representative in Chile, then-Archbishop Angelo Sodano, who would later be appointed Secretary of State and a cardinal, he managed to have the allegations made against him by a group of parishioners dismissed by Archbishop Juan Francisco Fresno.
Three of Karadima’s victims – Juan Carlos Cruz, Jose Andres Murillo and James Hamilton – publicly accused him of sexual abuse in 2010, but both the local hierarchy and an important section of public opinion were against them, inclined to believe a man who for decades had been a hero to Chile’s most conservative Catholic faithful.
“Fernando Karadima has died, former Catholic priest who abused sexually and spiritually of many people, among them, us,” the three survivors said in a joint statement released on Monday. “Everything we had to say about Karadima has been said.”
“He was one more link in this culture of abuse and cover-up in the Church,” they wrote. “We are at peace, and we are only moved to continue fighting so that these crimes don’t happen again, and for so many people who’ve lived through this and who still don’t have justice.”
Murillo first told Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz of Santiago that he’d been abused by Karadima through a letter in 2003. An investigation was opened, and the allegations found credible. However, the cardinal, who for several years was a member of Francis council of cardinals, rejected it. Years later, Errázuriz would acknowledge that he’d relied on someone else’s view of the abusive priest.
To this day, it’s unknown how many people were sexually abused by Karadima.
In the 1980s and 1990s Karadima led a lay movement from his parish in the neighborhood of El Bosque in Santiago, Chile, with some 40 young men finding their vocation to the priesthood. Four of these men, who formed his “iron circle,” were later made bishops.
The prelates have long been accused by the survivors of Karadima of having known of the abuses committed by their mentor and covering up for him.
When in 2015 Francis decided to appoint Bishop Juan Barros, one of Karadima’s followers, to the southern diocese of Osorno, the three survivors went to anyone who would listen to accuse the prelate of covering up for his mentor. The media, both in Chile and in Rome, kept the case in the spotlight. Chilean politicians sent a letter to the pope asking him to change course, and even some bishops spoke up against the nomination.
During his visit to Chile in early 2018, the Argentine pontiff defended Barros and accused the survivors of “calumny.” Yet, upon his return to Rome, he dispatched two of the Vatican’s top investigators to try to better grasp the situation.
The result was a 2,300-page report that led the pope to summon all the Chilean bishops to Rome for a three-day summit, in which the pope spoke of cover up.
At the end of the summit, the Chilean bishops all tendered their resignations, and in a span of a year, Francis accepted a third of them, including that of Barros.
The 2018 announcement from the Vatican that Karadima was being removed from the priesthood followed a similar decree that led to the removal from the priesthood of Cristian Precht, who had also been found guilty of abuse by the Vatican, but instead of getting a life sentence of penitence and prayer, was originally suspended from ministry for just five years, from 2012 to 2017.
While Precht was a hero to the left and Karadima was considered much more conservative, the two moved among the country’s elites. Precht was often referred to as a “charming bear, friendly with everyone,” while Karadima was widely regarded as the opposite.
The priest died without publicly acknowledging his crimes. In 2018, after meeting with Francis, one of Karadima’s younger brothers asked the former priest to admit his misdeeds and apologize.
“I would ask for him to be humble,” said Óscar Karadima to the Chilean newspaper La Tercera.
“Fernando, ask for forgiveness. Not in silence to God, not in your prayers. Make it public, so that people hear you apologize for the hurt that you’ve caused to victims and everyone,” he had said. “Fernando, you are a man who’s going to die. How do you dare to die like this, as a prideful man who doesn’t apologize?”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma