[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series exploring ties between Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz of Chile, a close papal confidante, and Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, who’s now accused of sexual abuse and abuses of power and conscience within the prominent lay movement he founded.]
Having accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals, Pope Francis seems to have passed one important test in terms of his willingness to impose accountability for clerical sexual abuse even on the highest-ranking clerics in the Catholic system.
If Francis is looking around for an opportunity to scale that second mountain in his reform campaign, there’s an increasingly strong case to be made that retired Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz may just be his man.
Errázuriz, 84, is one of the most senior prelates in Latin America, and a clear papal favorite. He was a close friend and ally of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, including working together on the Latin American bishops’ 2007 Aparecida document, which many observers consider a vision statement for Francis’s papacy. Errázuriz also serves on the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world, in effect his chief sounding board.
In recent months, Errázuriz has come under heavy fire over charges that he played a central role in multiple cases of abuse cover-up, the most prominent being allegations that he hid the crimes of Chile’s notorious pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima.
He has also been accused – alongside the current archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, 76 – of covering for Santiago’s ex-chancellor, Father Oscar Muñoz, who has been charged with having abused at least seven children, five of whom are his nephews.
However, quite apart from the drama in his own backyard, it turns out that Errázuriz also has a long history of support for a controversial lay group in Peru whose founder has also been accused of abuses of conscience, power and sexuality.
While there is no evidence suggesting direct awareness by Errázuriz of the abuses perpetrated by layman Luis Fernando Figari before allegations went public in 2015, the record does show that he was instrumental in both the foundation and expansion of the Sodalitium of Christianae Vitae (SCV) in South America. He also maintained contact with both the founder and the group well after the Vatican began investigating the abuse complaints.
Not only was it Errázuriz who invited the group to establish a foundation in Chile, but Crux has learned that he held frequent meetings with Figari while still in office, he visited their community houses during trips to Peru and, at one point, he donated a luxury property to the group for their apostolic projects in Chile.
Figari is known to have established an intricately woven web of influential contacts in the Church, with a clear preference for the conservative camps of the Chilean ecclesial hierarchy and upper class, including both Errázuriz and Karadima.
Before unpacking the evidence linking Errázuriz and Figari, it’s important to understand who the Chilean prelate really is and how his unique intersection of friendships and power allowed him to be a key player in what is today the Church’s most burning crisis.
Errázuriz’s rise to power
Errázuriz has had many roles over the years: Superior General of the Institute of Schönstatt Fathers; Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life from 1990-1998; Archbishop of Santiago from 1998-2010; and President of the regional Latin American Bishops’ Conference, CELAM, from 2003-2007.
Born into an aristocratic family in Chile in 1933, Errázuriz is the second of six children and studied mathematics before getting involved with the German-born Schönstatt Movement while in university.
In 1961 he was ordained a priest for the Schönstatt Fathers, a group of priests dedicated to serving projects and activities carried out by the movement. The group describes its mission as extending the work of its founder, Father Joseph Kentenich, a one-time prisoner of the Nazis in Dachau, as forming “firm, free personalities, to live holy lives in the midst of the modern world.”
After his ordination, and after obtaining a licentiate in theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, Errázuriz served as chaplain for both students and professionals involved in the movement throughout Chile, offering spiritual guidance and support.
In 1965, he was named regional superior for his order, a position he held until 1971. That year he participated as vice president in the Conference for Clergy in Chile and was also asked to attend the Schönstatt Fathers’ general council in Germany. He was elected superior general of the order in 1974 and re-elected to the position in both 1980 and 1986.
In 1996, Errázuriz was given the personal title of Archbishop of Valparaíso, and in 1998 was named Archbishop of Santiago, the same year Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named archbishop of Buenos Aires. Both were given red hats by John Paul II in February 2001.
In 2003 Errázuriz was elected as CELAM’s president, and it was during this time that he and Bergoglio began to establish closer ties. Shortly after Bergoglio was elected to the papacy in 2013, taking the name of Francis, he tapped Errázuriz to be part of his council of advisers.
Errázuriz and the Chilean abuse crisis
At least since 2015, Errázuriz has drawn heavy criticism from victims of sexual abuse and abuses of power and conscience perpetrated by Karadima. Most pointedly, they accuse Errázuriz of covering up for the priest’s crimes, both while he headed the archdiocese of Santiago and after his retirement in 2010.
At least three of Karadima’s most outspoken victims – Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo – have accused Errázuriz of willful cover-up and have called for him to stand trial alongside Ezzati, the current Archbishop of Santiago, and the pope’s ambassador in the country, Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, whose formal title is “apostolic nuncio.”
After the three victims had personal meetings with Francis in late April, Hamilton told journalists that Errázuriz failed to act after abuse reports were first raised in Santiago in 2003, despite being told by a Chilean Promoter of Justice that they were credible and should be followed up with canonical prosecution.
“Cardinal Errazuriz was covering up for more than five years the criminal Karadima and all of his acts,” Hamilton said.
Similarly, abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz said after his April one-on-one with the pope that he cautioned Francis to watch out for “these toxic people that surround him.”
Karadima, ordained a priest in 1958, was a popular and charismatic priest who oversaw the parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in El Bosque, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Santiago.
In the 1980s, Karadima took control of the El Bosque chapel and turned it into a thriving pastoral center which saw the participation of hundreds of young men, many of whom aspired to be priests. To this day there are still some 40 priests and four bishops associated with the parish during Karadima’s time, one of whom – Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno – has been at the forefront of the Chilean abuse crisis.
In the early 2000s, allegations arose against Karadima for sexual abuse and abuses of power and conscience. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles cases of clerical abuse, found the priest guilty in 2011, sentencing him to a life of prayer and penance. Chilean civil authorities investigated Karadima but ultimately dropped charges since his crimes were beyond the country’s statute of limitations.
Francis initially defended Barros, calling accusations against him “calumny” during a visit to Chile in January. The comment caused an uproar, and the pope eventually sent Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate the accusations, which resulted in a 2,300 page report.
Afterwards, Francis changed tack. In an April 8 letter to Chilean bishops, the pontiff said he had made “serious errors” in judging the case due to “a lack of truthful and balanced information” and summoned all Chilean bishops to Rome.
At the close of the meeting, which took place in May, every active bishop in Chile presented a written resignation to the pope. Since then, Francis has accepted the resignation of five, including Barros and Horacio del Carmen Valenzuela Abarca of Talca, who is also one of the four bishops formed by Karadima.
Francis also accepted the resignation of Bishop Alejandro Goić Karmelić of Rancagua, who failed to act on credible accusations of clerical abuse until after coming back from the May meeting. He has also accepted the resignation of Bishop Gonzalo Duarte, who succeeded Errázuriz in Valparaiso, and who is himself accused of not only cover-up but of abuses of power and conscience with sexual connotations.
However, he has yet to make a move on Errázuriz and Ezzati, both of whom, at the very least, face charges of tolerating a culture of cover-up. Ezzati faces questioning by a Chilean prosecutor on August 21.
Given Errázuriz’s access to the pope, and the victims’ insistence that they had gone to him about Karadima’s abuse multiple times only to be dead-ended, many have pinned the blame on him, questioning whether it was perhaps he who misled the pope on Barros.
Errázuriz has maintained his innocence, claiming in a May 22 letter published in Chilean paper La Segunda that at one point he asked the Vatican to lift the Church’s statute of limitations so Karadima could be tried. It’s worth nothing, however, that in 2001 St. Pope John Paul II issued a motu proprio, meaning an adjustment to Church law on the pope’s personal authority, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis tutela, which allowed the Vatican’s doctrinal office to waive the statute of limitations on a case-by-case basis.
Furthermore, allegations against Karadima had been presented in Santiago as early as 2003, well before Errázuriz retired in 2010. They were presented again in 2005, and again in 2009, before finally reaching the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith late that year. The guilty verdict didn’t arrive until early 2011.
Around that same time, accusations also began to go public in Peru surrounding Figari – dubbed by some Spanish-language media outlets as the “Peruvian Karadima” – who founded the SCV, a Catholic society of apostolic life, in Peru in 1971. The group received pontifical approval in 1997 and became a powerful force on the global Catholic scene, with communities in several nations, including the U.S. in Denver, Colorado at the invitation of Archbishop Charles Chaput, who would later also bring them with him to Philadelphia.
Cruz, who traveled to Peru in mid-June to meet with members of congress investigating the Peruvian layman, told Crux at the time that “Errázuriz is really good friends with the abusive delinquent Figari.”
Figari, he said, “came to Chile invited by Errázuriz on more than one occasion, and their connection is strong. But no one should be surprised by this: wherever there’s delinquency, Errazuriz is there.”
As it turns out, there’s nothing speculative about Errázuriz’s ties to Figari. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that his Sodalitium of Christianae Vitae would never have become the force it did were it not for the critical backing of his friend in high places in Chile.
Part two of this series details the longstanding relationship between Errázuriz and Figari.