SANTIAGO, Chile – According to Dr. Ignacio Sanchez Diaz, the rector of Chile’s Catholic University, the country’s clerical sexual abuse crisis will be solved by three kinds of people: victims and survivors who are able and willing to come forward, academics who study the issue and suggest solutions, and journalists.

Chile’s Catholic University, one of Latin America’s highest-ranking colleges, has lent its credibility to address the country’s abuse crisis, which is often labeled as the worst outside of the English-speaking world.

In 2018, the unraveling of years of abuse and systemic cover-up in Chile led Pope Francis to summon the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences to Rome in 2019 to talk about the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.

However, Sanchez says the Chilean bishops have not necessarily been up to the task. In fact, when the university presented a one-of-a-kind study on clerical sexual abuse in Chile in 2020, detailing the cases and allegations going back 50 years, only two of the 35 bishops invited to the presentation showed up.

Sanchez told Crux on Tuesday that he had just received a request from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to speak to the Chilean population in a video conversation hosted by the Catholic University, after the country’s Congress rejected the request. Though the date hasn’t been set, the rector readily agreed, and it will hopefully happen before the end of next week.

Sanchez spoke with Crux about Chile’s upcoming plebiscite to approve a new Constitution, drafted earlier this year to replace one dating from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The country’s clerical abuse crisis and the identity of Catholic universities in a growing secularized society such as Chile, that saw a 25 percent drop in the percentage of Catholics in just two decades.

Crux: What do you think of the draft of the Constitution that Chileans will vote on Sept. 4? 

Sanchez: As an academic, I find it worrisome, because it has many contradictions between the articles, and we are going to be decades analyzing and changing the articles of a constitution like this. There are going to be enormous problems with implementation.

As a Catholic, I find unacceptable the articles that speak of the right to life, with free, unregulated abortion, with a complete absence of conscientious objection, introducing concepts such as that the decision could not be “altered by third parties,” and it no longer speaks of mothers, but of pregnant women. As for education, there is a hypertrophy of state education, with an undervaluation of private education, particularly Catholic education.

And as a Chilean, I think it is a missed opportunity, because we had 80 percent of people who approved a new fundamental charter. And whether it is rejected or approved, it is going to be by a minimal margin, 48-52, or so, for one of the two sides. With a charter that passes with the minimum, or is rejected by a divided country, it shows that the attempt to seek consensus from the beginning failed. And part of the problem is the mood in which the members of the constituent assembly were elected, an atmosphere almost of social outburst, where the real forces of Chile were not represented.

When the members of the convention tell you that all the articles were approved with two thirds of the votes of the convention, one may ask, how much real representation did these members of Chilean society have?

Today the outcome is uncertain, but a fundamental charter that has no more than 60-70 percent support is going to be short-lived.

How is the Catholic University of Chile working to remain relevant in a Chile that is increasingly secularized and, at the same time, increasingly critical of the Catholic Church?

That is very interesting, because within Latin America, within the country, we have been leading international rankings and evaluations for a long time. I could not say that with the issues of church abuse, with the secularization, with the fall of the number of Catholics from 75 percent to 50 percent in less than 20 years, one could think that the evaluation of the Catholic University could have followed that path, and the truth is that it has been the opposite.  

The academic evaluation of this institution has been on a very significant and persistent upward trend, at the same time that the valuation of the term “Catholic Church” has taken a steep fall. Ninety percent of the students and professors who apply to work here do so because it is a very good university, not because it is Catholic. But we have a very good reflection of Chilean society, with 50 percent of students defining themselves as Catholic, and a slightly higher percentage among professors and staff.

What we want is to live our faith within our university, as a Catholic community, where non-believers have the experience of a Catholic institution that can serve them for the future, and then we have the mission that non-believers respect our identity. 

This is not always an easy thing to do when you have 35,000 students. 

The Catholic University at the academic level is trying to contribute to the fight and prevention of abuses within the church. What are the projects? 

Under the leadership of Eduardo Valenzuela [university sociologist, expert in sociology of crime, among other things], in 2018, we had an interdisciplinary commission composed of professors of theology, philosophy, medicine, social sciences, art psychology, who worked for almost a year to produce a report on the reality of abuse in the church over the last 50 years.

In our country, this report is unpublished. Unfortunately, I have to say that it did not have the resonance in the church hierarchy that one would have hoped for. Our great chancellor and archbishop Santiago [Cardinal Celestino Aos] supported the report. However, of the 35 bishops we invited to the presentation of the report two years ago, only two came. Subsequently, we have made three presentations at the Latin American level with representatives from Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Colombia, with a better reception than at the national level. 

We are currently working with the Episcopal Conference to update the report and to understand why it was not as well received as we had hoped within the Episcopal Conference. When one understands why it was rejected, one realizes that it was because we did not take into account the progress made in recent years in the different dioceses. 

It is good that we update the report incorporating those advances, because if there are some dioceses that have made significant gestures, it seems important to us to incorporate them, so that other dioceses can learn from them.

What we wanted was to stir up the national and Latin American environment on this subject, because we saw that there was a report in France, a report in Germany, a uniform report in the United States, and at the Latin American level we did not have this information. 

Do you think that the academic world in Latin America is investing a lot of time and effort in the whole issue of prevention and a reform of the church on this issue?

My experience is that abuse is going to be solved by three types of people: the victims, the academics and the journalists. It is not going to be the bishops who solve the issue. I think at the academic level we had the reflection in 2018. 

When Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, came to Chile to investigate the issue of abuse at the request of the pope, we met with them to see what we could contribute as a university. And we came up with the idea of a report that would evaluate the situation from the broadest possible point of view and would set a floor and from there move forward. 

It is important that the academic world gets involved, always putting the victims at the center. From this idea Cuida was born, a joint project with the Fundación para la Confianza, in which Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo [survivors of Chile’s most infamous pedophile priest, Fernado Karadima] are also working. 

And there is still much we can do.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma