Already the most serious clerical sexual abuse crisis since the United States in 2002-2003 and Ireland in 2009-2010, the unfolding situation in Chile took another turn this week when the former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Santiago, the national capital, was arrested on seven counts of abuse and rape between 2002 and 2018, involving minors between 11 and 17, five of whom reportedly were his own nephews.
The arrest was accompanied by a police raid of archdiocesan offices, which reportedly produced evidence that Church officials were aware of the accusations but did not report them to civil authorities.
What makes the situation especially ironic is that Father Óscar Muñoz Toledo had been the archdiocesan official charged with receiving the testimony of abuse victims who wanted to make a complaint to the Church. Earlier this year, Muñoz reported himself for one count of abuse.
One of the victims who had appeared before Muñoz to tell his story, Chilean philosopher José Andrés Murillo, spoke to a local newspaper on Saturday.
“We are studying what legal actions to follow, because this seems very serious,” Murillo said.
He referred to a blistering speech Pope Francis delivered to the bishops of Chile when he summoned them to Rome in mid-May, indicating he believed several of them were guilty of serious errors of judgment and even criminal behavior such as the destruction of evidence.
The Muñoz case, Murillo said, “indicates that the words of the pope that were very hard on the bishops’ conference are still valid. The state had to get involved, because the Church didn’t take the initiative to provide any background, and we believe that the culture of cover-up, which is at least as serious as the abuse itself, is still alive.”
As the Chile drama continues to play out, four big-picture conclusions suggest themselves.
First, there’s little reason to believe that Chile is an anomaly and that the clock isn’t ticking toward similar eruptions in other parts of the world.
Right now, experts with knowledge of what’s happening on the ground say it would surprise them if the dam doesn’t break soon, for instance, in Poland, or in the Philippines, and even in Italy itself, where the “crisis” as other nations know it really has yet to arrive.
Forward-thinking Church officials in places that have not yet suffered significant scandals right now might well want to scour their archives for whatever potential crimes may lurk there, rather than waiting for lawsuits and police raids to kick them loose.
Second, a narrative that many in Catholic officialdom have been trying to promote for the last several years is that while the abuse scandals were awful, they’re largely a thing of the past. The sort of abuse and cover-up seen decades ago, they argue, would be impossible today under the strong new protocols the Church has adopted.
What the Muñoz case reveals, however, is that those protocols are only as valuable as the will to apply them. His alleged abuse runs right up into the present, as does the failure of Church officials to report it.
No doubt, the Church in many parts of the world, including the U.S. and much of Europe, has indeed turned a corner, to the extent that secular child protection experts in those regions have come to see the Church as a pacesetter and ally. In many other places, however, far from turning a corner, the Church sometimes doesn’t even seem to recognize there’s a corner at all.
Third, Francis may be on the cusp of a third phase in terms of how his response to the Chilean crisis is perceived.
The pontiff’s first phase extended from 2015 until this January. During that time, he steadfastly defended Bishop Juan Barros, his controversial appointment to Osorno accused of covering up for the country’s most notorious pedophile priest. For the most part, Francis was seen as just hoping to ride out the storm.
After his trip to Chile in January, the pontiff made a hard turn, dispatching investigators to the country, meeting victims, and bringing the bishops to Rome to read them the riot act. He’s accepted five resignations so far, with the promise of more to come, and won praise from abuse survivors and reformers across the board.
Now, however, attention is shifting away from relatively low-hanging targets such as Barros to bigger game – specifically, Cardinals Francisco Javier Errázuriz, who presided over the Archdiocese of Santiago from 1998 to 2010, and Ricardo Ezzati, the current archbishop. Both face charges of at least tolerating the “culture of cover-up” to which Murillo referred – and, at worst, of actively fostering it.
To date, the pontiff hasn’t take action against either man. That strikes some observers as especially inexplicable in the case of Errázuriz, since it would be relatively simple for Francis at least to remove him from his “C9” council of cardinal advisers.
Were the Chilean crisis to end today, the take-away on the pope probably would be that it took him too long to get there, but he eventually tried to do the right thing. If he doesn’t move on figures such as Errázuriz and Ezzati, however, impressions of his role could evolve into something more sinister.
Fourth and finally, the judgment that Errázuriz and Ezzati perhaps ought to be worrying about most today may not come from Francis but from Emiliano Arias, the regional prosecutor in Chile who arrested Muñoz and who ordered the raid on the archives.
A hard-charging crusader who came to fame leading a series of anti-corruption probes in Chile, and who once faced a death threat for his trouble, Arias has indicated that he sees the cover-up, not the abuse itself, as the next judicial frontier.
While it’s certainly fair to expect the pope to identify and sanction Church leaders who have concealed reports of abuse, in terms of real-world consequences, whatever the pope does or doesn’t do may not matter very much. At that level, once-powerful prelates such as Errázuriz and Ezzati have already been disgraced in the media and the court of public opinion, and they could still face serious legal charges.
In other words, if you’re a Catholic leader in the early 21st century and it turns out you covered up abuse, however anxious you may be about Rome’s response, in a sense the pope may be the least of your problems.