Head of Chilean bishops abuse office says there’s need for ‘cultural change’


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

ROSARIO, Argentina – After seeing the magnitude of the abuse scandals in Chile, Pope Francis replaced almost half of the South American country’s bishops, and summoned the head of all the bishops conferences to Rome for a clerical abuse prevention summit in 2019.

Yet once the attention from the world’s media shifted its focus elsewhere, victims in Chile were still struggling – and some are still waiting for justice. 

Pilar Ramírez is the head of the department of prevention of the Chilean bishops conference. 

“In retrospect, and in the face of the horror of abuse, it is clear that the objective is always to prevent and repair,” she told Crux. “This is a great challenge in which we continue to strive, but there is certainly a long way to go, also insofar as we are aiming at a cultural change. That is what we want to aim at.”

“Pope Francis already exhorted us to do so in his Letter to the People of God on pilgrimage in Chile, inviting us to participate actively and jointly, without fear, in the ecclesial transformation driven by the Holy Spirit,” Ramírez said.

The lay expert discussed with Crux the role of the laity in the prevention of clerical sexual, abuse, what the Chilean Church – both the hierarchy and the laity – have done in recent years to address the crisis, and what still needs to be accomplished.

What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: How and why did you decide to dedicate yourself to the prevention and protection of minors?

Ramírez: I can say that in some way God has led me down this path, without me proposing it too much. While I was studying law at the University of Chile, I was invited to be part of a project that provided care to pregnant teenagers; it was my first approach to childhood and vulnerability.

Once I finished my university studies, I began to work in a Foundation belonging to the Catholic Church also in a project for children whose rights were violated. There I came across the issue of sexual abuse and all its complexity. While I was there, I was invited to be part of the Council for the Prevention of Abuse (2011) and since 2014, I have been working for the Episcopal Conference of Chile, collaborating in the work to create a culture of care and protection, to which Pope Francis has invited us. 

I thank God for this path and the place from which I can serve today.

On the subject of abuse prevention – be it sexual, or of power or conscience – there is much talk of the need for a change of mentality and also of heart. Do you think this is happening in the Chilean hierarchy? And at the level of the laity?

It is difficult to know what is happening inside people. I believe that the changes for which you consult, which is very personal, only God and the person who has accepted to live this conversion can give an account of that experience that has touched his heart. However, I can give you my impression in relation to the external changes that I have been able to appreciate in a general way, in those of us who are part of the people of God who are on pilgrimage in Chile. 

We all suffered a shock as the crimes of sexual abuse and conscience became known. However, gradually we have been integrating our co-responsibility in the task of prevention. The formation processes for the prevention of abuse and the installation of a culture of care in our Church have been relevant for this. My own experience as a rapporteur of these courses and trainer of trainers has convinced me that talking about sexual abuse is already a first step that allows the visibility of this complex reality and provokes a reaction of empathy with the victims, and of responsibility for the care of all in the Church, and also in society and in families. 

The search for change and a new way of being Church has also been embodied in the national discernment process that the Chilean Church has been carrying out since 2018, which has become an urgent response to the acute ecclesial crisis generated especially from abuse. This process has been an invitation to seek together a new way of being Church, that includes lay and consecrated men and women. The process to which I refer has led us to make a joint journey, searching from the deep roots of the crisis, the action and will of God for the whole Church on pilgrimage in Chile. We hope that the ecclesial assembly that we will hold this year will be one more contribution to this process. 

Monsignor Sergio Buenanueva, who coordinates the commission for the protection of minors of the Argentinean bishops’ conference, said that: “This crisis calls us to retrace our steps, to see how we have faced the crisis in past decades, to learn from the many mistakes, perplexities and situations that were not carried out adequately. There is a big learning curve for everyone in the Church: from the Pope to diocesan commissions to anyone who wants to help address it.” How do you see your own learning curve?

I definitely perceive that process as a constant, in that after each milestone, I can notice the need to keep moving forward on that path, to keep learning. This learning has been nurtured by many people who have generously helped me along “this curve.”

First of all, all that I have learned from the victims, from their courage, their tenacity, their search for justice and the good of the Church so that it may be more like what Christ invited us to be. From their vital testimonies, I have especially learned that there is no way to welcome them and to try to make reparation without their active, opinionated and creative participation in these processes.

Pope Francis and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet leave after a meeting with government authorities, members of civil society and the diplomatic corps, at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)

I have also learned from the hundreds of people who have volunteered to collaborate in training others in this delicate subject. They give their hours and days off to work in this endeavor. Among these people there are victims, there are relatives of victims, there are lay people, consecrated men and women who courageously walk this path.

I have learned from Church authorities who have committed themselves to seek ways of reparation and welcome to the victims, often making mistakes, but persisting with humility in this endeavor.

Finally, from all of them I have learned the value of healthy and respectful relationships and their preventive – and also restorative – role in relation to abuse of power, conscience and sexual abuse. 

What is, for you, the role of the laity in the issue of abuse?

The role of the laity is fundamental for all pastoral action, including the construction of healthy environments, characterized by care. It is in spaces built on the basis of care that we can treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and make the mission of proclamation concrete. In this way, they have had a tremendous role in the work of abuse prevention developed in Chile, they have been generous in taking charge of it, collaborating to overcome this crisis. I would especially like to highlight the work of the women, who quickly accepted this invitation, also contributing with all the richness of their feminine identity, with all the richness that it integrates, to this work of care.

In the process of discernment that the Church in Chile is undergoing and that I mentioned before, the vitality of the contribution of the laity in addressing this crisis is also present. It is evident in the longing expressed by the communities for a profound redefinition of participation in ecclesial life. This yearning has several edges, including the recognition that this is a path that we make together, overcoming self-sufficiency, recognizing that we need each other, a path of co-responsibility between the laity and the consecrated. 

Although you have been working on the issue – both from state and ecclesiastical programs – for more than two decades, many consider that the situation within the Church in Chile “was uncovered” only in 2018, with the visit of the pope, the Scicluna Report and then the pope’s summons to Rome of both survivors and victims. Four years after that event, how do you see the situation? Do you maintain any contact with Rome?

The truth is that this situation has painful antecedents in Chile since 2001, with relevant milestones at the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Since 2011, with the creation of the National Council for the Prevention of Abuse, the bishops’ conference of Chile has been working systematically to progressively install various strategies for the prevention of abuse in the Chilean Church. In 2015, the implementation of the Guidelines for Care and Hope began, giving impetus to training programs that involve all persons who serve in the Church in Chile, lay and consecrated, volunteers or not.


The year 2018 is clearly fundamental. After the visit of Pope Francis to our country and the subsequent summoning of the bishops’ conference to the Vatican, situations of abuse appear and reappear with crudeness. Also from that year and in view of the seriousness and painful impact of these facts, the bishops met in the 116th Extraordinary Plenary Assembly of bishops held in July 2018, analyzing the situation together with a group of people whom they invited to have a sincere and fraternal dialogue on the matter. From that Plenary Assembly, a series of commitments and the adoption of fundamental measures regarding the issue emerged, including the creation of the Department for the Prevention of Abuse, responsible for the implementation of prevention policies and part of the permanent organic of the CECh.

In the following years, we have gradually advanced in the creation of instruments and in the implementation of measures aimed at creating and strengthening the sought-after Culture of Care.

In retrospect, and in the face of the horror of abuse, it is clear that the objective is always to prevent and repair. This is a great challenge in which we continue to strive, but there is certainly a long way to go, also insofar as we are aiming at a cultural change. That is what we want to aim at. Pope Francis already exhorted us to do so in his Letter to the People of God on pilgrimage in Chile, inviting us to participate actively and jointly, without fear, in the ecclesial transformation driven by the Holy Spirit.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna traveled twice to Chile in 2018 as papal envoy. At first, to investigate the possible responsibility of the bishop emeritus of Osorno, Juan Barros, in the cover-up of abuse cases. However, after collecting dozens of testimonies, what he found was what he himself would call a “Pandora’s box“. After the second visit, the Episcopal Conference, by decision of the bishops, announced the creation of the Department for the Prevention of Abuse, which to this day you coordinate. What is the work of the Department for the Prevention of Abuse of Chile’s bishops Conference? 

As I have already mentioned, the objective of the Department is to execute the guidelines and criteria of the Episcopal Conference and its National Council for the Prevention of Abuse and Accompaniment of Victims. This translates into the support and supervision of the implementation of prevention measures established by the Catholic Church in the different ecclesial environments and Catholic schools in the country.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta speaks to the media in late June 2018 in Santiago, Chile. (Credit: Alberto Valdes/EPA via CNS.)

Also in the institutes of consecrated life that request this support. To this end, we are constantly accompanying the diocesan instances of abuse prevention, existing throughout the country and we have been implementing and strengthening training programs in abuse prevention, aimed at people involved in the various ecclesial environments. 

On the other hand, it is also a fundamental task of the Prevention Department to receive reports of abuse.

What is the future work of this team?

What is coming for the Department is to continue with the work of strengthening the diocesan institutionality of prevention and the implementation of measures in relation to it.

We will continue with the task of receiving complaints, as a service of the Episcopal Conference aimed at providing a space of trust in which people who come to us feel supported in their process of seeking the truth.

When we talk about “team” — how many people would you say are involved in the work? 

There are a large number of people involved in this work. 

On the one hand, there is the Prevention Council, a body of the Episcopal Conference created in April 2011, to “guide and direct prevention policies on sexual abuse of minors and help victims.” Its members have done valuable work ad honorem in the last 11 years, committed to this tremendously difficult cause, especially at the beginning, but absolutely necessary. 

There are also the people, lay and consecrated, who form part of multidisciplinary teams that advise the bishops on these issues and who also work silently and voluntarily in this function. In addition to these people, in the dioceses and throughout Chile, there are hundreds of trainers accredited by the Bishops’ Conference to provide basic training in abuse prevention.

Each one of these people, in their different areas, accompany and collaborate with the Department of Prevention of the Episcopal Conference, where two people work on a paid basis and one as a volunteer, a religious sister.

Are you still receiving complaints? Although each case is unique, is there a more or less “standardized” methodology of what happens with a report of abuse that reaches this commission?

Yes, there is. This is a task that has been taking less time as the number of complaints has been decreasing, but it is still a service to which we have the greatest commitment.

When a person contacts the service, we offer a welcoming and listening space. There, together with the attention to the testimony of the persons – a task in which we strive to have the highest standards of care and delicacy – we offer guidance on the management that will have that complaint in the canonical system and also in what refers to the state order and even make contact with referents of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Chile, as appropriate. We register the reports, giving a copy to the person who denounces and then we refer them to the respective ecclesiastical authorities. These authorities are the ones who must then manage the processes originated in the denunciations.

Our service also follows up on each case, requesting information from the authorities in order to provide it to the complainants. With the latter we try to respond to the debt that the canonical order maintains with the denouncers by not considering them part of the processes, a debt that we understand has been recognized and that is expected to be rectified with a future reform.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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