SANTIAGO, Chile – Experts have long said that in order to fully address clerical sexual abuse, the laity has to get involved. In Santiago, Chile, devastated like few others after the fall of several highly respected priests and two consecutive archbishops accused of cover-up, this tactical change is spearheaded by five women.

Andrea Idalsoaga heads the Pastoral Office for the Reception of Allegations of the Archdiocese of Santiago. She was called in when the office was created, after being a judge of the National Ecclesial Tribunal for 16 years.

“This is not only a problem of the hierarchy, but all the baptized are co-responsible so that this does not happen again,” she told Crux. “I believe the abuses were the symptom of something much deeper in the church, like an iceberg … [they’re] a symptom of a culture that, as Pope Francis said, is one of cover-up, abusive.”

Throughout the week, this office was described to Crux as one in a handful of instances where the Catholic Church in Chile is doing what it should when it comes to welcoming victims, help wounded communities heal, and working on preventing future abuse.

What follows are excerpts of Idalsoaga’s conversation with Crux.

Crux: How was the office born?

Idalsoaga: It all started in 2018 with that precious coming of the Holy Father. I don’t think anyone imagined what was going to happen, and I think it was all providential. If he had not made a mistake in that declaration at the last minute, nothing would have changed.

In addition to what was already happening with the Karadima case and the three courageous people to whom we are so grateful, because thanks to the fact that the Chilean case was so [covered in the media], with people with the educational and economic capacity to be able to continue and persevere, this was uncovered, but in many places people are so vulnerable, fragile, poor and needy, that the situation is more easily covered up.

The coming of the Holy Father, with that mistake before boarding the plane, saying that in Chile there was no cover-up, that he wanted to see the evidence, is what leads to the beginning of the change.

The path is very nice, because the archbishopric decided in September 2018 to create an episcopal delegation. That is, it decides that it is a laywoman in this case, who receives the powers of the bishop to coordinate the whole issue of abuse, both prevention and the reception of complaints, the coordination of the canonical investigation, the reparation of the victims, with psychological, psychiatric help if necessary, and also with accompaniment of the wounded communities.

Since then we have been working, and it has been a very painful but also enriching experience.

How did you come to this office?

I am a lawyer, and all my life I have worked in canon law, since university when I was an assistant professor of canon law. I left the university, got married, had my first child, and then I was called to work at the National Court of Ecclesiastical Appeals, as an auditor. After two years I was promoted to judge, and I spent 16 years in that court.

Between 2010 and 2011, one of my bosses was part of the Karadima case, and I was able to see the people who came to testify, which prepared me from a criminal point of view.

From a spiritual point of view, I was preparing myself since 2010 when, being in Rome, I met the Family of Merciful Love, with a charism particularly focused on the mercy of God, who loves us tirelessly.

The foundress, Blessed Esperanza de Jesus, received from the Lord the request to offer her life for the priests of the whole world, in particular for those who would do harm to the church and for me to know this charism was like the last piece of the puzzle: there can be no holy priests without lay people willing to pray and offer themselves for this intention.

I never imagined that I would end up working on this, but today I have a wonderful team of people: We are five women, and thanks to God, who comes first in everything, we are moving forward.

What is the process of the Archdiocese of Santiago’s anti-abuse office? 

Here there has been a pastoral complaints office since 2011. Now that office is still there, with a certain independence, led by a psychologist, who receives the complaints and sends them to me. I pass the complaint to the archbishop, and between the two of us, we make the decision on how to proceed, and it is very nice, because we work very much in communion with a group of people. We are several heads who think about what to do in each case, such as determining whether to send it to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (mandatory if minors are involved), who the investigators will be, etc.

Regardless of the investigation and process, as soon as a person comes forward to make a complaint, we offer psychological reparation. If it eventually turns out that there has been no abuse, a person who comes forward is someone who is coming for help, and as a church, we are called to welcome them.

For the psychological recovery we work with outside therapists, experts in complex trauma, and if psychiatric care is necessary, we also cover the financial cost. And if necessary, we also work with the family of the victims, such as their parents or their children. I thank God, because so far, we have been able to help those who have approached us, at least to make them feel welcomed, loved and valued.

The people we find it hardest to help are those who have been ignored in the past, or those who were not believed when they came the first time. And it is also complex to reach those people who believe that the problem is the church itself, who have hatred for the institution in their hearts.

My experience, in these last four years, has been that the people who have kept their faith are the ones who recover best. For this reason, I am convinced that we have to go deeper into the issue of abuse of conscience.

In parallel to the psychological help, we carry out the canonical investigation, and process if necessary. We also take precautionary measures, such as notifying the community and starting to work with them, because we have noticed that in the face of a complaint, the parish community is divided between those who are with the priest and those who are with the complainant.

For this last aspect, working with the wounded communities, we formed a specific team during the pandemic, and the experience in the field of these professionals has so far been positive.

Do you have an idea roughly how many people have approached the office? 

The record was between 2018 and 2019. In the first year, more than 20 people came, not all of them from Santiago, because we have become a channel of denunciation for other dioceses and also for religious congregations, over which we do not have jurisdiction, but we have collaborated when the congregations do not have a denunciation office or an interdisciplinary work team like ours.

Last year, however, we had eight complaints, mostly for abuse of authority rather than sexual abuse.

How long can the process take from the moment a survivor makes a complaint?

It depends on many variables, including the number of victims and testimonies to be taken. There are only a few of us in the office, but at the moment, an ecclesiastical process here takes two years, when in the civil justice system it can take five.

What does it mean to you that the five people who work full time in the office are women?

I think it is a sign of the times. I must say, I have never felt discrimination in the church of Chile for being a woman, quite the contrary: Since I was 30, I have worked in positions that require a lot of trust from the authorities. I believe that the fact of being a mother of five children has also prepared me for this role, part of a church that is more of a mother, because it needs to welcome, shelter, protect, protect people who have been injured, victims of a crime. This also includes sheltering those priests who have been secondary victims of the crisis, who are attacked simply because they are priests.

The image of the church is so vilified, and I feel that to some extent, unjustly. In Chile, during 2021, the Public Ministry received 26 thousand complaints of sexual abuse, and these are crimes that nobody talks about. It is necessary to work on prevention of these crimes at national level, also at home, because 80 percent of the minors were attacked in their own homes.

Do not misunderstand me, the fact that there is only one child victim of ecclesial abuse is too much, and we have to eradicate this crime, as well as the culture of cover-up. But I want this very painful experience that has gone through us as a church, to lead us to be a light for a society that today is crossed by violence. I dream big, with a reality in which parishes are a safe environment for children, a refuge, and so are all families and schools.

Anything else you would like to add?

I believe that we are all co-responsible. This is not only a problem of the hierarchy, but all the baptized are co-responsible so that this does not happen again. I believe that the abuses were the symptom of something much deeper in the church, like an iceberg, the abuses are a symptom of a culture that, as Pope Francis said, is one of cover-up, abusive.

In this mystical body there are members who perhaps fulfill more important functions, but we are all very important and we need each other. That is why synodality is so important, and I believe it will help us to move towards the future with great hope and change this way of relating to one another, preventing future cases of abuse as much as possible.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma