ROME – A Chilean prosecutor this weekend announced plans to bring an “historical trial” against the Catholic Church for attempting to hide or eliminate evidence related to clerical sexual abuse, confirming what Pope Francis said in May in a letter to the country’s bishops’ conference: “We know that there were religious who destroyed evidence.”
In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, prosecutor Emiliano Arias compared the decision of the Chilean Church not to cooperate with civilian authorities to having unreported “dead bodies” under a chapel.
Chile is a country shaken by the abuse crisis. The country’s public ministry announced last week the existence of a registry that compiles 158 people related to the Church – bishops, priests, religious brothers and sisters and laity in positions of leadership – who’ve been investigated since 2000.
In that registry, there are at least 266 victims, 178 of whom were minors at the time they were abused. Many observers have pointed out that this may be only the “tip of the iceberg,” since an estimated 90 percent of cases of sexual abuse never come to light.
There are currently 37 open cases of sexual abuse within the Chilean Church, but the number grows with each passing week.
On August 21, Arias will question the head of the Archdiocese of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, considered the leader of the Chilean Church due to his position. He’s been summoned under allegations that he covered-up cases of clerical sexual abuse.
Arias believes Ezzati knew that the former chancellor of the diocese faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Father Óscar Muñoz denounced himself to Church authorities in late 2017 for having sexually abused a minor, and days later, he was removed from his position. Since then, it’s become public that he’s allegedly abused at least seven minors, five of whom are his nephews.
Among other things, Muñoz was tasked with recording new allegations of clerical sexual abuse as they reached the archdiocese.
Arias is the man in charge of investigating sexual abuse, and he’s been tasked with leading the investigation at a national level. Thanks to raids on several diocesan archives in recent weeks, he today has information of 90 canonical investigations over abuse allegations that have been conducted since 2007.
“It’s a fact that the religious in this country don’t have the obligation to report,” Arias told Spanish newspaper El País. “But can they hide the fact that they’re not obligated to work closely with civil authorities denouncing the crimes against minors? It’s as if they’d had under a chapel many dead bodies and they’d only conducted canonical investigations.”
Speaking about the target of his investigation, Arias was clear: “The culture of coverup within the Catholic Church that has allowed for these crimes to happen.”
This path, he said, leads him straight to the bishops.
“Whom do all the allegations of sexual abuse against children and adolescents go through? The bishop. They know the facts throughout the process.”
Arias suspects that “the system did not work, because the victims were not given adequate attention, they were not believed, the investigations were not carried out, the obligations of sending them all to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were not fulfilled, and the canonical justice system is inefficient.”
“We know that Chilean religious destroyed evidence of sexual abuse,” he said.
Arias does acknowledge that it was Pope Francis who “opened the path to investigate the cover-up of abuses,” with the letter he sent to the Chilean faithful on May 31.
In the past six months, the Argentine pontiff went from being a firm defender of one of the Chilean bishops accused of covering up for the country’s most infamous pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima, to apologizing for his mistakes. He then sent two representatives to Chile to investigate the case of Bishop Juan Barros, and two months later found in his hand a 2,300 page report, the product of interviews with over 60 people.
“The [pope’s letter] is strong. A head of state is telling us to our face that some of his citizens in Chile have a culture of cover-up and abuse,” Arias told El País.
After raiding the archives of the archdioceses of Rancagua and Santiago, Arias was able to arrest Muñoz.
“We’re going to carry out an historic trial and I hope that we’re able to establish if, had determined bishops complied with their due diligence, a good portion of the sexual abuses against minors committed by Chilean religious could have been avoided,” Arias said, urging the victims to come forth.
After prosecutors released the number of cases that are being investigated, the Chilean bishops decided to call for an extraordinary general assembly. The meeting will be taking place this week -Monday through Friday- and, according to the bishops themselves, they’re meeting to address the crisis. They’ve invited victims of sexual abuse to share their testimony.
According to a statement released last week, the scope of the meeting is to analyze “the causes and roots of the current crisis the Church is going through, define the paths to follow at a national level, and some general and specific actions for the dioceses.”
Bishop Fernando Ramos, secretary general of the Chilean bishops’ conference, said the gathering is framed in this “special moment the Church is living,” adding that after the letter the pope sent to the Chilean Church, the prelates have been “drawing a path of discernment to take on the challenges that he poses to us and those that we ourselves want to work on.”
In the letter, signed and made public on May 31, addressed to the Catholics of Chile, Francis said he’s ashamed of the fact that “we didn’t listen” to victims of clerical sexual abuse, and as a result, “didn’t react on time.”
He also acknowledged that the Catholic Church needs external help to address the issue of clerical sexual abuse: “To pretend that this enterprise depends solely on us, on our strengths and tools, would enclose us in dangerous dynamics” that would “perish in the short term.”
“Let’s allow ourselves to be helped, and let’s help to generate a society where the culture of abuse doesn’t find space to perpetuate itself,” Francis said in his letter, exhorting every Christian to unify to promote “with lucidity, and strategically, a culture of care and protection.”
“One of our main flaws and omissions [is that] we don’t know how to listen to victims,” the pope wrote. “For this reason, partial conclusions were constructed, lacking crucial elements for a healthy and clearer discernment,” he said in the letter read Thursday.
The “never again” in the culture of abuse and cover-up that allows it to be perpetuated in time, the pontiff wrote, demands “all to work to generate a culture of care that impregnates the ways we relate, pray, think, and live authority.”