Vatican efforts to clean house in Chile stopped too soon, advocates say

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Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles by Crux’s Rome Bureau Chief Ines San Martin on the situation of the Chilean Church.

SANTIAGO, Chile – The Catholic Church in Chile today resembles a lighthouse with a broken lightbulb — the bishops have lost all credibility — and the Vatican has seemingly abandoned efforts to fix it.

On the one hand, at Pope Francis’s direct order, two top Vatican officials compiled a 2,300-page report in 2018, which included a long string of allegations against bishops, priests, religious and lay church employees, documenting sexual abuse, abuses of conscience and power, and a decades-long coverup.

The report by Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was hand-delivered to the pope. Many meetings were held in the Vatican, and swift action was taken: Francis met with two groups of abuse survivors, and summoned all Chilean bishops to Rome, who were asked to present their resignation. In a span of a year, the pontiff had replaced 30 percent of the episcopacy.

However, no official reason was ever given as to why they were removed.

But despite having lost 30 percent of the bishops’ conference in less than 12 months, local experts believe that Pope Francis gave up too soon, with no real plan in place when it comes to restoring the Chilean hierarchy.

Former priest Eugenio de la Fuente said it is as if Rome changed the light bulb in the lighthouse, but left before fixing the mechanism that makes it rotate.

In January 2021, de la Fuente’s resignation from the priesthood was accepted. He had been one of a group of nine abuse survivors and priests who traveled to Rome in 2018 to meet with Pope Francis, after he had met the survivors of Karadima and the coverup. De la Fuente supported the survivors for decades.

“There are pending cases against bishops, and the victims deserve an answer, but this never came,” de la Fuente said. “And the fact that there are bishops with a known double life who were appointed to new dioceses after the Scicluna report is a scandal.”

He claimed that the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops (DB), and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), don’t talk among themselves. De la fuente said that Chile’s “old guard” has a good relationship with DB, and the office in Rome “plays dumb” and doesn’t consult the DDF when appointing new bishops to Chile. 

“And the DDF does not go public, saying to whoever will listen, ‘This appointment is a scandal, here are the reasons why’,” he said.

“Why, if the pope’s office knows about this struggle between bishops and the DDF, do they not generate an instance of ecclesial, hierarchical communion that works together?” De la Fuente said. “This power struggle is unpresentable.”

Father Cristian Borgoño, a former member of the Legionaries of Christ, who co-created the Facebook page Legioleaks for ex-members of the order to publicize allegations of abuse, said, “I understand the difficulty the pope had in finding episcopal candidates, and as such I am not surprised that this was the replacement rate.”

“The problem is, you still have several bishops who were part of Karadima’s circle of trust who are on active duty, and there is a cloud of doubt over them,” he told Crux. “And when you are not able to discern the good from the bad because those who you know are bad are still in office, canceling them all is a natural reaction.”

Though both de la Fuente and Borgoño are critical of the church in Chile  and agree that the Vatican didn’t finish its job when it came to cleansing the bishops’ conference, they say it should be capable of identifying a handful of good bishops.

A big question mark today is who will be appointed as archbishop of Santiago.

Spaniard Cardinal Celestino Aos was appointed in 2019, when he was 74. The mandatory age for a bishop to resign is 75, so his term was always supposed to be a short one. He is now 77, and all those interviewed by Crux this week agreed on the importance of finding a good replacement. The reality that it might be one of the existing Chilean bishops, however, caused several to break into a cold sweat.

“If one of this old guard, who is angry with the pope for what he tried to do in Chile but is a friend of the Congregation for Bishops, is elected as archbishop of Santiago, it will be a total defeat and it will be completely evident that it was all a charade,” de la Fuente said. “Or that the pope let himself be defeated for some reason that we do not know. It is almost scary to think why the pope did not bring this to the finish line. What is going on in Rome, what threats are there, what can they do to make him go back?”

Eduardo Valenzuela, head of the sociology department of Chile’s Catholic University and an expert on the sociology of crime, believes there are two core issues in the crisis: The loss of credibility of the Catholic Church, and the fact that, to date, the bishops continue to hide behind lawyers to avoid any sort of institutional responsibility for the crisis.

“The bottom line is that the bishops are not willing to assume any institutional responsibility, and therefore, to have a concrete, meaningful gesture with the victims,” he said. “They are not willing to do what the pope did: Call the victims, invite them to Rome and recognize that he was wrong.”

The reality is that the bishops are more concerned with the juridical question than the human question, with the institution still at the center, and not the survivors, Valenzuela said.

“I think we are stuck,” he said, pointing out that in Chile, the priests involved in the sex abuse crisis are of great renown: Seven of the country’s ten most famous and most respected priests have faced credible allegations of sexual abuse, and several have been removed from the priesthood.

“This greatly affected the public perception of the problem, and has ingrained the idea that the crisis is much more generalized than it is,” he said. “Karadima is the symbol, but the most famous Legionary priest in the country, the most relevant Jesuit, the most admired diocesan priest, all fell.”

Something Borgoño, de la Fuente and Valenzuela all identify as a problem is the prevalence of religious congregations in the country. There are fewer than 1,000 priests in Santiago and half of them are religious. That percentage increases when it comes to the country’s bishops. 

As Borgoño explained, this means that it is the religious orders that are tasked with receiving and processing allegations against their own, making the question of accountability even harder. 

“The religious congregations dragged their feet as much as the bishops; they responded to a crisis, but were never proactive, and were too slow to respond and deficient in their answers.”

Valenzuela agreed, adding that, had it not been for the media and several instances of investigative journalism that brought virtually all allegations to light, “we would still be in the dark,” and even less would have changed.

“The crisis and its coverup generated a fierce crisis of public credibility, not only in the hierarchy, but for all priests,” he said. “The church lost all public trust, and this led to the 2018 events and the failure of the pope’s visit.”

“But in this second stage, post-visit of the pope, the church has done nothing,” he said. Having access to the bishops himself, Valenzuela has suggested the bishops create a truth commission and produce a comprehensive historical report. Thus far, they have refused. 

And they might soon find it is too late. Valenzuela said that if Chileans vote in favor of the new Constitution in September, President Gabriel Boric, “a millennial with no deference whatsoever to the church,” will create his own commission, similar to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse, with a chapter dedicated to the church. “And the bishops – and religious – will be forced to give compensation to the victims.”

It is the victims who have the most credibility in the eyes of most Chileans, and with the exception of a handful who are willing to work with the institution – including three of Karadima’s survivors who have helped create a center for the study of child abuse in the Catholic University – the victims speak with one voice: “All bishops are criminals, and the church is a nest of crooks.”

And until the lightbulb is changed and the mechanism set right, local church watchers agree, it will not be able to light the way for anyone depending on it.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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