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Point person on abuse in Bolivia says more must be done to tackle crisis

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[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles by Inés San Martín exploring the state of the Catholic Church on Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America. The first previous can be found here.]

CORDOBA, Argentina – For several years, a large number of the allegations of clerical sexual abuse that reach the Vatican have come from Latin America, where arguably, only Chile has fully grasped the scope of the crisis.

In Bolivia, for instance, the bishops conference only recently produced a set of abuse guidelines.

According to a 2015 report from the ombudsman office – the latest one available online – 23 percent of children in Bolivia suffer some form of sexual abuse before reaching the age of 18, and on average, 12 children are abused every day.

Susana Inch is a lawyer who works as a consultant for the bishops conference, specializing in sexual abuse.

“On the one hand, I am fortunate to work with bishops and priests who have made a commitment to this issue, which is not always easy,” she said, while acknowledging that simply “acting in the face of abuse” is not enough: “We have to work to really understand what abuse generates, which I think we have not yet understood in Bolivia.”

Inch began working at the conference in 2004 after serving as a volunteer in Carita’s pastoral office. In 2018, she began teaching Ecclesial Law at the Catholic University of Bolivia, where she specializes on religious freedom.

During a conversation with Crux, she spoke sincerely about the successes and shortcomings in addressing the abuse crisis, her personal fear that a “catastrophic” situation, as the one in Chile, might be needed for the Church in Bolivia to understand the scope of the problem.

Crux: Bolivia has long been a secular state, though many think this has only been so since the 2009 Constitution. This change, however, has led to a profound transformation, that some believe touch on issues of religious freedom. Can you give some examples of this?

Inch: The rule of law in Bolivia has been growing a lot, but with a very clear expression against religious freedom, particularly against the Catholic Church, due to the fact that at the foundation of the republic, the Catholic religion was fundamental to everything that was the Spanish conquest, and also for the independence [movement]. Bolivia was born as a confessional state. There is a clear acculturation with the Inca’s own religion, and the rest of the original populations. This has always made the Catholic Church a part of the political and cultural life.

But in the last years, the intention of the national government to take away the protagonism of the Church was evident, particularly in matters of the pacification of the country, which was even more accentuated at the end of 2019, when in the face of a very big social conflict, the bishops mediated so that there could be a transition as peaceful as possible at that time. An extreme that today is very delicate, because Evo Morales and his current successor, Luis Arse, are describing as a coup d’état an event that was absolutely constitutional and that avoided enormous bloodshed. This has determined the beginning of a direct persecution of the Church.

It is a very particular persecution, because it is not frontal in terms of politics, but has taken the issue of abortion and the defense of life as a tool to attack the Church, which has led to physical attacks against the bishops’ conference itself, with the explosion of a homemade bomb at the door of the conference a little over a month ago, as a clear sign of the violence that is being experienced by the imposition of silence on the Church in all areas, private and public, both in politics as well as in its own doctrine.

Today the government is afraid of the Church, but does the Church have the influence to, for example, raise the people against the government? Is this fear and desire to silence justified?

Undoubtedly, because the Catholic Church still has a very profound presence in society, not religiously because the number of Catholics has decreased notably. But the Catholic Church is also recognized as one of the institutions with the greatest moral solvency to deal with sensitive issues in the country. This has been accentuated because one area that the government of Mas [the ruling leftist party] has accomplished is to fracture the institutions. And in all the organizations of the country, factions have been created that arrogate to themselves [to different groups.]

The only institution where they have not achieved this has been the Catholic Church. The Morales and Arce governments have tried to divide, speaking of a right-wing hierarchical church and a left-wing people, but thanks to God, the bishops have remained united: This was demonstrated in the last assembly in November.

The solvency that is still recognized to the Catholic Church, the fact that it maintains a unity that no one has been able to achieve, makes the Church remain relevant today.

Isn’t there a right-wing hierarchical church and another one close to the people?

No, it is not true. This is the discourse with which Nazism has tried to divide the Church, but this division is not real. The role of the church has been to fulfill a service, the bishops as well as the people of God have made the necessary effort to continue with those services, trying to be impartial, because the situations of abuse of power when it comes to extreme poverty shouts to the sky. But beyond the political issue, unity in the Church has been maintained.

Did you decide to start working on abuse prevention issues, or were you asked to do so at the request of the bishops’ conference?

It was the conference … While I am personally committed, it comes from the conference. I have to admit that the situation is not ideal, but there is a clear commitment.

What is the situation in Bolivia today, how do you think the episcopal conference is working to address the crisis?

On the one hand, I am fortunate to work with bishops and priests who have made a commitment to this issue, which is not always easy. On the other hand, it is not true that we have to act only in the face of abuse, but we have to work to really understand what generates abuse, which I think we have not yet understood in Bolivia.

In Bolivia it is true, there is much more abuse in homes, so some minimize the issue, but I think that the real problem that exists within the Church has not yet been made visible, for various reasons. The way to start working on the issue has been prevention, with an interesting response to take steps on this issue. We have the guidelines, and they have already been updated in November, applying Vox Estis Lux Mundis. This has been worked on in a positive way.

But there is much to be done in practical and concrete terms: Having guidelines is not enough. If we do not start working on formation and everything related to the issue of respect, we are not going to do what is necessary to deal with this problem. It is clear to me that, at the beginning of 2022, we are not prepared to really face the issue within the Church, much less at the national level – that is, what happens in families and schools.

In fact, they use the issue of teenage pregnancies resulting from rape to attack the Church on the issue of abortion. But as a Church, it is up to us to begin to analyze this issue. Pregnant teenage victims of sexual abuse are often victims of a cycle of sexual violence in environments close to home.

The task is enormous, and for sure, we have not understood, although I want to believe that we have opened our eyes, to the enormous issue of sexual abuse and its consequences.

What, in your opinion, is going to trigger the awakening that is so necessary in Bolivia, thinking particularly in the case of the Catholic Church? In the United States there was Spotlight, in the case of Chile, Fernando Karadima. Do you think that the global awakening of the Church is enough, or is a particular case in Bolivia necessary?

I am afraid that, in order to finish reacting to the magnitude of the problem we are facing, we would need a trauma as deep as the one experienced by the Chilean Church. Hopefully not. In the last two years there have been responses and reactions, but I believe they are insufficient to face the serious problem, both inside and outside the Church.

Undoubtedly, there are situations of sexual abuse and violence in the Church, but we do not know how much. We do not have the data: If the proportion is dramatic as in Chile, or less, we do not know if we will be able to react or if everything will explode in our face, which means that it becomes visible in a tragic way if we have not acted accordingly.

My prayers are for God to help us to react today, and I do not say ‘react’ to avoid the crisis and for things to become public, but for us to really face the problem properly. Today I see that we are on a tightrope, and we do not know if we are going to be able to get to the other side or if it is going to be cut. I see both as possible options, but I am not sure if we are doing the right things to avoid the rope being cut off.

What is the role of the laity in the issue of prevention?

I think there are several issues, particularly abuse, that engage and challenge us all, it is not true that a few can solve it. In the church in particular, the role of the laity plays a fundamental role, even in Bolivia. In Bolivia we are “lucky” to arrive late, which allows us to see what happened in other places and to learn. This is why the debate on the role of the laity in the ecclesial assembly also took place.  

I consider that for women, due to the issue of motherhood, the topic is even more challenging. For me, professionalism conflicts with the possibility of my son having to deal with something like this. I believe that we all have a role, close or distant from the problem, but from wherever we are, we are called to respond and generate safe spaces and help – and identify – a child who suffers. It is not true that we do not realize when a child is suffering, we can see it, and we have the obligation to help him or her to end the situation of violence he or she may be living in.

I believe that we are, as lay people, called to act; it is inevitable. And if we don’t, we are going to be as responsible as an aggressor could be.

If there is a survivor in Bolivia who reads this article, where can they contact you?

We have a very serious failure as a bishops’ conference, because a free hotline was set up, the commission for the prevention of abuse was created and we have a web page. But the web page stopped working because of an administrative clumsiness in the middle of the pandemic, because we forgot to pay for the renewal of the domain.

I have insisted a lot on the need to have a person dedicated exclusively to this issue. The toll free line was connected to my office.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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