SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Chile has suffered one of the most anguished clerical sexual abuse crises anywhere in the Catholic world, which makes the recent choice of a new Archbishop of Santiago by Pope Francis unquestionably a watershed moment for the Latin American nation.

Yet a watershed in what sense is a matter of debate.

Admirers suggest that new Archbishop Fernando Chomalí Garib, who took office Dec. 16, is just the man to lead the rennovation of the Chilean church, an adept user of social media and a prelate committed to dialogue. Critics, however, say he’s part of the problem rather than the solution, as he allegedly covered up abuse cases in the past.

Now 66, Chomalí obtained a degree in civil engineering in 1981 and three years later entered the seminary, being ordained a priest in 1991. He completed a Ph.D. in Sacred Theology in Rome in 1994.

Since the 1990s, he served as a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Santiago. In 2006, he was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Santiago, and in 2011 became the Archbishop of Concepción.

Over the years, he’s gained a reputation as an intellectual with solid formation and as an expert in bioethics, becoming a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

In his tenure as the Archbishop of Concepción, Chomalí strengthened the social dimension of his ministry. In 2017, for instance, the archdiocese launched the Mobile Shelter La Misericordia (“the Mercy”), a bus with beds, showers, and a refectory that functions during the night and serves the homeless population of Concepción.

Two years later, Chomalí launched Cafetería 440, a coffee shop managed by people with Down syndrome, with the idea of offering work for that segment. Those programs, along with other initiatives, helped the Chilean Church gain favorable media coverage during hard times.

The reputation crisis suffered by the Church was first triggered by revelations of the abuse crimes committed by ex-Father Fernando Karadima. Karadima was accused of having committed numerous abuses of minors for decades, but the story became publicly known in 2010 when three of his victims gave a TV interview.

Chomalí’s participation in that case is now a matter of controversy in Chile.

According to a story published on the Chilean news website El Mostrador, one of Karadima’s victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, a close advisor to Pope Francis, said in an interview with journalist María Olivia Mönckeberg that Chomalí had investigated the finances of El Bosque, the upper class parish led by the abuser priest in the capital, in 2010 and concluded that there were no problems.

Later inquiries, however, showed that the parish received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and that part of that money disappeared.

Criminal investigations demonstrated that Karadima not only had a luxurious lifestyle, but also paid for the silence of people who knew of his crimes.

Chomalí was also accused of failing to help Cruz, whom he said was his friend, when Cruz sought help to deal with the abuse he suffered from Karadima. In an interview after assuming the Archdiocese of Concepción, Chomalí acknowledged that he had “behaved badly” with Cruz, that his silence was harmful, and that he lamented the way he acted with a person who needed a friend and a bishop.

Cruz answered on his X account on that occasion that “one day he would forgive Chomalí.”

“For years I asked him for help, and nothing. It still hurts. He was my friend,” he said.

Another Chilean abuse victim has also claimed that Chomalí failed to help him. José Lara Valenzuela, a lay Catholic from Concepción, told Crux that he was abused by a local priest, now laicized, named Reinaldo Méndez Sánchez in 2002.

“I was 21 years old and had been approved to get into the seminary. Méndez Sánchez invited me, along with other boys, for an excursion to the town of Santa Juana. He got me drunk and raped me,” Lara recalled.

He reported the incident in 2015, both to the church and to the prosecutor’s office. No legal process could be launched, because of the statute of limitations of that kind of crime.

“I reported the crime again, and in June of 2018 Chomalí received me for a meeting. He decided to reopen a canonical process,” Lara said.

Méndez Sánchez ended up being laicized and was convicted of raping a 14-year-old boy between 2014-2017. Lara testified against him in order to demonstrate he had a pattern of behavior. He was sentenced to 5 years of probation and still faces two charges for other abuses.

Lara and the archdiocese made a deal and he received compensation of about US$ 40,000, besides psychological attention.

Despite the archbishop’s role in reopening Méndez Sánchez’s canonical case, and the compensation paid to Lara, he doesn’t believe that the Church – and Chomalí – dealt adequately with the situation.

“I asked Chomalí if he knew about other abuses committed by Méndez Sánchez, and he said no. He said that he had asked the priest several times about it and that he denied it,” Lara recalled.

“But later Méndez Sánchez was laicized due to ‘accumulated causes.’ Well, that means that the church knew that he had perpetrated other crimes, but refused to make them public. It was important for me and the other victims to know everything the priest did, but we may never know it. And the church knows it,” he lamented.

Lara said that in June the Archdiocese of Concepción decided to terminate his weekly psychotherapy sessions. He said that he needs them, given that he still lives with the scars of the abuse.

“We go on with our lives, but crises of panic, anguish, and insomnia are usual. My psychiatrist said that I should see a psychologist, but they took it away from me after only two years,” Lara said.

He feels that after paying the compensation and funding psychotherapy sessions for a while, the archdiocese feels that it has fulfilled its duties and can now move on.

“He told me that I had rights, and that those rights would be respected. But what happened was the opposite. It was a way of whitewashing the church’s reputation, an operation of marketing,” Lara said.

In his opinion, Chomalí “won’t change anything in Santiago.”

That’s not the opinion of theologian Claudia Leal, a professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Santiago and an expert in church abuse.

She emphasized that the Chilean Church has been facing a deep crisis over a long-standing “culture of abuse and cover-up,” in the words of Pope Francis.

“In Chomalí’s case, no type of legal responsibility has been proven for complaints of abuse or cover-up, and as the Archbishop of Concepción he made progress in the management of complaints,” she told Crux.

At the same time, she went on, “it’s reasonable to think that during his administration in Concepción mistakes have been made, that the victims’ voices have been underestimated, and that various cases of abuse of power, conscience, and sexual abuse have not been appropriately managed.”

“The Chilean church has been trying to build a culture of transparency and accountability in those matters and I’m sure that Chomalí is committed to that process, which is certainly far from being concluded,” Leal said.

Chomalí was Leal’s professor when she was an undergraduate student and she was his class assistant for a couple of years. She remembers him to be a man who was always open to being contradicted, and who was always ready to listen to different opinions.

“Later on – when he was already a bishop – I could see how that ability to dialogue has grown and became stronger. I hope that attitude will bring to the Archdiocese of Santiago an atmosphere of confidence in talking,” she added.

Fernando Soler, another theology professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Santiago, argued that a structure was implemented in the Catholic Church “that allows power and certainly sexual abuse” and that “even a bishop who is willing to combat every kind of abuse and cover-up can hit a wall.”

“This wall is a true deficiency in the Church’s response, and, sadly, it has an undeniable re-victimizing effect. From my side, I simply hope to see Chomalí acting in the Church of Santiago; for now, I trust that he understands the seriousness of the task,” Soler told Crux.

He emphasized that Chomalí has always been “an active bishop in the public arena,” a “person with social media presence who doesn’t fear to face complex topics, including those in the moral or in the political fields.”

“I believe he’s a bishop who is available to discussing views which contradict his own ideas. I think that the Church of Santiago needs a more modern, open, and dialogic style,” he said.