Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Religion

Chile Shaken by Sex Abuse Allegations against Revered Priest

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Apr 30 2010 (IPS) - A small group of feminists demonstrated outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in the Chilean capital Thursday to express their condemnation of an influential Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing at least five teenagers.

“Imagine what a shock it is for those of us who did not know what was really going on with these priests,” 44-year-old Edita Andrade told IPS, as she watched the protest by a score of representatives of Articulación Feminista Por la Libertad de Decidir (Feminist Network for the Right to Choose).

“I think it’s a good thing for people to wake up and react. Religion cannot be used to cover up these crimes,” Andrade said. A few steps away Sonia, another Chilean woman, was calling for priests involved in sexual abuse to be specifically named. “We need to avoid generalising, because not all priests are the same,” she told IPS.

“Many things are damaging the Catholic Church. Covering up child sex abuse crimes is one of them,” Octavio Rojas, who joined the symbolic protest in Santiago’s main square, told IPS.

This South American country of 17 million people has been shaken by the case of Fernando Karadima, formerly parish priest at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the well-to-do Santiago neighbourhood of Providencia, who is under investigation by the justice system for alleged sexual abuse committed two decades ago involving at least five teenage boys.

The 80-year-old Karadima, who is described as a charismatic, influential and highly respected cleric who trained many priests, some of whom are now bishops, denies the allegations. He has been defended this week by members of religious orders and ordained and lay Catholics.

James Hamilton, a 44-year-old gastroenterologist, and Juan Carlos Cruz, a 46-year-old executive living in the United States, denounced Karadima in an article published Apr. 22 in The New York Times.

Hamilton, Cruz and three other men who were allegedly abused by the priest, starting when they were under 18, talked about their experiences on the Informe Especial programme of the state Televisión Nacional de Chile channel on Apr. 27.

Previously, on Apr. 21, the president of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, Monsignor Alejandro Goic, formally apologised to Chilean society for the cases of sexual abuse committed by priests.

Goic, who is also bishop of Rancagua, said 20 priests have been accused of paedophilia in Chile. Five have been convicted, another five are being actively investigated by the justice authorities, and the rest have either been absolved or their cases are still under review.

Four days later, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz admitted in a letter read out at mass in every Catholic church that he had suspended an investigation into Karadima’s alleged behaviour in 2005, in order to await “further evidence” and to consult experts in canon law.

He said the investigation was resumed in 2009, when he handed over the evidence against Karadima to a new Church “Promotor of Justice”, appointed last year, for a thorough investigation of the facts, for either “a declaration of innocence or the necessary measures.”

“There is no room in the priesthood for those who abuse minors and there is no pretext whatever that can justify this crime,” said the cardinal, who called on victims to report their experiences.

“Citizens have a duty, not only to discuss all the details of these cases in public, but also to demand punishment,” Adriana Gómez of Articulación Feminista, an umbrella group of some 20 organisations, told IPS.

“Women’s organisations have been struggling over the last few years against a Catholic Church that imposes a very strict morality and harsh rules on us, and then we see impenetrable secrecy as they close ranks around those who committed these crimes, which are treated as misdemeanours, human failings,” she complained.

In Gómez’s view, the recent statements by the Chilean church leadership are not enough. “I don’t think there is complete transparency yet. It seems some are more protected than others. So far there have been few criminal penalties. I’m sure Karadima will only be punished by sending him on ‘spiritual retreat’,” she predicted.

As well as penalties for priests found guilty of child abuse and reparations for the victims, Articulación Feminista is demanding that the Catholic Church refrain from interference in state matters and desist from its “control over people’s bodies, sexuality and reproduction,” a reference to the country’s complete ban on abortions, among other issues.

Ena von Baer, official spokeswoman for right-wing President Sebastián Piñera, said Wednesday in reference to the Karadima case that the government “will always be on the side of the victims” while it waits for a judicial verdict.

Amid the global scandal over paedophile priests, on Apr. 12 the Vatican posted guidelines from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which says that the facts in these cases should “always” be reported to the civil authorities.

According to the last census in 2002, nearly 90 percent of Chileans over the age of 15 believed in some form of religion. Of these, 70 percent said they were Catholic, 15.1 percent were protestant, and 4.4 percent belonged to other faiths.

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