Taking on Abuse in Chile

What Francis Is Up Against
Fr. Fernando Karadima leaves a 2015 hearing at the Chilean Supreme Court building in Santiago. (CNS / Sebastian Silva)

On May 18, all the bishops in Chile offered Pope Francis their resignation en masse in response to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal there. It was a highly dramatic gesture and a welcome sign of their willingness to “let go.” Yet it doesn’t solve the thorny and complex problem that led to the resignations. The roots of the scandal go deep.

A good example of this can been seen in the case of Fernando Karadima, the charismatic priest who preyed upon young men in the El Bosque parish for three decades, and who was sentenced by an ecclesiastical court to a life of “prayer and penance” in 2011. He ran what amounted to a religious cult centered on his own personality—one that was wildly successful, producing no less than fifty priests, four of whom became bishops. They called him the “little saint” while he abused them sexually, controlled them psychologically, separated them from their families, and had them spy on one another so that he could control them further. This wasn’t just about sex; it was about power.

Francis gets it. In a statement he made to the Chilean bishops when he met with them in Rome, he said, “We must pay attention to what I allow myself to call ‘elite psychology’...elite or elitist psychology ends up generating dynamics of division, separation, ‘closed circles’ that lead to narcissistic and authoritarian spiritualities.... Messianism, elitism, clericalisms, all are synonymous with perversion in the ecclesial being.”

That perversion remains a tough one to cure. Many of those whom Karadima cultivated stayed loyal to him after he was accused. They not only defended him; they also spread false stories to discredit the whistleblowers. The number of people involved in covering up his crimes alone is staggering. When one adds to this all the other cases, such as the abuse at a school run by the Marist order and scandals associated with the Legionaries of Christ in Chile, one begins to understand why the report of Vatican investigator Archbishop Scicluna was 2,300 pages long. The Chilean bishops have totally lost credibility; it’s not surprising that Chile has the lowest level of church engagement of any Latin American country.

I think it’s time for Francis to call on the most powerful secret weapon for reform that the Catholic Church possesses: women.

And it’s not over. A new scandal broke as the bishops returned home from their meeting with Pope Francis. Bishop Alejandro Goic, president of Chile’s episcopal commission for the prevention of sexual abuse by the clergy, was confronted by a television exposé about a clergy sex ring called “the family” in his own diocese. He had to suspend fourteen priests (20 percent of those in the diocese) for soliciting sex and sharing pornographic material with underage boys. Goic had been told about this network of abusers eighteen months earlier by the former diocesan coordinator of youth ministry, Elisa Fernández, but did nothing. And he was entrusted with overseeing the protection of minors! (He has since resigned from that commission.)

Fortunately, Fernández did not give up. She opened a Facebook account posing as a sixteen-year-old boy named Pedro, and communicated with a fifty-four-year-old priest under that alias. The sting operation worked. The priest sent Pedro erotic messages and a nude photo of himself. Confronted with the evidence, the priest confessed. The case is now in the hands of the public prosecutor, who suspects there may be even more “family” than the fourteen already named. Once again, as in the case of Karadima, this episode reveals a conspiracy of iniquity in the clerical establishment.

How can Francis even begin to take on such pervasive corruption? In his address to the Chilean bishops he taxed them with gross negligence, passing around known abusers to other dioceses, suppressing witnesses, and destroying evidence. Resignations are not enough, he said: “It would be a serious omission on our part not to delve into the roots. It is a great fallacy to believe that the removal of people alone, without more, would generate the health of the body. There is no doubt that it will help and it is necessary to do it, but I repeat, it is not enough.”

Francis plans to meet with five priests who were abused by Karadima, plus four others who have accompanied these survivors. Maybe they will have some suggestions for him. But he is going to need more help if Chile is to extricate itself from the snares of an inbred system that has not proved capable of reforming itself.

I think it’s time for Francis to call on the most powerful secret weapon for reform that the Catholic Church possesses: women. They are not part of the clerical elite. They have no promotions to gain or positions to lose, and they have a much better track record on protecting the vulnerable. They are courageous: look at the initiative taken by Elisa Fernández. And they are a rising force in Chilean society. Their visible and leading presence in an effort to clean up this mess would be a sign of the coming Kingdom.

Published in the June 15, 2018 issue: 

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

Also by this author
The Old Rite Returns

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture