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

Activists in Mexico Want to Be Heard by the Pope

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Mar 21 2012 (IPS) - Spiralling violence, demands for justice voiced by victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests, and ordination of women priests are issues that, in the view of experts and activists, Pope Benedict XVI will not be able to evade in his visit to Mexico.

The pope “does not have a specific policy for different groups in society, as did (his predecessor) John Paul II, who had distinct ways of approaching young people, intellectuals and indigenous people, for example,” said Elio Masferrer, an expert at the National School of Anthropology and History.

Masferrer told IPS that the Church is turning away from a strategy based on addressing the needs and concerns of the Catholic grassroots social base, and reaching out instead only to the elite.

“This is a great weakness. The Church is in a state of paralysis. The faithful do not follow what the hierarchy lays down, and therefore the leadership has lost its power to influence the daily lives of Catholics,” he said.

“Under the circumstances, the Church is in a highly precarious situation,” he said.

On his first visit to Latin America, Joseph Ratzinger, who was named pope in April 2005, will be in Mexico from Friday Mar. 23 to Mar. 26, when he travels on to Cuba.

In Mexico he will stay in the central state of Guanajuato, which has a strong Catholic majority, the highest in the country. Among the highlights of his visit will be an open-air mass for hundreds of thousands of people, and a meeting with President Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

The 84-year-old German pope will be arriving in Mexico just a few days before the official start of the campaign for the July presidential elections, amid increasing violence arising from the battle between government forces and drug trafficking cartels, and a crisis in the local Catholic Church.

The government’s crusade against drug mafias, launched by Calderón as soon as he took office in December 2006, has resulted in the deaths of over 47,000 people, according to the latest official figures. Relatives of the dead want the pope to listen to them and speak out about the situation.

“We want to deliver the victims’ message. We would like to tell him what is happening; we have travelled the country and embraced the victims,” Javier Sicilia, a practicing Catholic and poet who founded the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, told IPS. Since his son Juan Francisco was murdered along with six other young people on Mar. 28, 2011, he has become the leader of a national protest against the drug war.

On their own individual initiative, a group of those affected by the violence sought an audience with the pope, but without success. That is why Sicilia and four other activists went to Rome for a meeting Thursday Mar. 22 with Italian bishop Mario Toso, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to hand over a letter for the pontiff and describe the situation in Mexico.

Mexico and Central America “are a body, like the body of Our Lord, which has borne all the weight of criminal forces and omissions and serious corruption by the government,” the illegal arms trade, money laundering, and “a hierarchical Church which keeps a complicit silence,” says the two-page letter.

One of Pope Benedict’s goals is to shore up Catholicism in response to its decline in Mexico, where 83.9 million people out of a total population of 112 million are self-declared Catholics, while 10.9 million people adhere to evangelical or other religious denominations, according to the 2010 national census.

The Catholic Church’s annual statistical record shows that baptisms and church weddings fell between 1980 and 2008.

Another issue activists are concerned about is the sexual abuse of seminary students by priests, and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators – a topic that touches Pope Benedict directly because of his previous position at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which since 2001 has been responsible for ecclesiastical investigations and policies on sexual abuse.

As prefect of the congregation from 1981 to 2005, Ratzinger learned of paedophilia cases in the Legion of Christ, founded by the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel (1920-2008), but failed to take adequate steps.

Maciel, the head of the Legion of Christ until 2005, allegedly had sexual relationships with two women, fathered at least six children between 1941 and 1970, and sexually abused several seminary students – some of whom were under-age – according to accusations and witness statements.

In 2006, Pope Benedict ordered Maciel to retire into a life of penance and prayer, but did not adopt stricter measures against him or against the Legion. The Vatican, however, did censure Maciel for his “very serious and objectively immoral” criminal conduct and accused him of living a life “devoid of scruple.”

“It is impossible to bring this issue up. It puts the pope and the Mexican bishop’s conference in a very delicate position, because on the one hand they tell him not to touch on certain subjects, but at the same time they do nothing to change things,” complained Masferrer.

The Department of Investigations on Religious Abuse, a local NGO, says 30 percent of the more than 14,000 priests serving in the country have committed some kind of sexual abuse against parishioners.

A group of victims in Mexico has unsuccessfully sought an audience with the pope.

On another matter, Catholic women’s groups have asked the Vatican to change its vies about women, with regard to issues of sexual and reproductive health and religious leadership.

“We want a Church that is committed to social justice and human rights, a loving Church that is inclusive and respectful of differences and of individual freedoms, that recognises the moral harm its members have done to victims of sexual abuse,” the head of Catholics for the Right to Decide (CDD), María Consuelo Mejía, told IPS.

The CDD, a sister organisation of Catholics for Choice, is running the “Catolicadas” campaign to address issues like gender discrimination, abortion, sexual diversity and contraceptive use.

“If I had the chance, I would like to be ordained priest,” María Castillo, a nun belonging to the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, told IPS. She is writing a book about alcoholism and the clergy, a topic that has led her into disagreements with the authorities of her order.

“Some sisters are striving from the ground up…The hierarchy should come down to the level of the poor,” she said.

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