Pope seeks to turn tide of Chilean church bruised by scandal

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Fernando Karadima is escorted from a court, after testifying in a case that three of his victims brought against the country's Catholic Church in Santiago, Chile.

Fernando Karadima is escorted from a court, after testifying in a case that three of his victims brought against the country's Catholic Church in Santiago, Chile. (Photo: AP)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Pope Francis' visit to Chile was always going to be fraught, but it has taken on an unprecedented degree of opposition with the firebombings of Catholic churches ahead of his Monday arrival and protests by Chileans fed up with priest sex abuse and cover-up.

Francis is coming to a country where around 60 percent of Chileans declare themselves to be Roman Catholics, but where the church has lost the influence and moral authority it once enjoyed thanks to sex scandals, secularization and an out-of-touch clerical caste.

"I used to be a strong believer and churchgoer," said Blanca Carvucho, a 57-year-old secretary in Santiago. "All the contradictions have pushed me away."

The pope will try to reverse the trend during his three-day visit, which gets underway in earnest Tuesday with a series of protocol visits for church and state, and will be followed by a three-day trip to neighboring Peru.

In Chile, he plans sessions with migrants, members of Chile's Mapuche indigenous group and victims of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship. It remains to be seen if he will meet with sex abuse survivors. A meeting isn't on the agenda, but such encounters never are.

Chile's church earned wide respect during the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet because it spoke out against the military's human rights abuses, but it began a downward spiral in 2010 when victims of a charismatic, politically connected priest came forward with allegations that he had kissed and fondled them.

Local church leaders had ignored the complaints against the Rev. Fernando Karadima for years, but they were forced to open an official investigation after the victims went public and Chilean prosecutors started investigating. The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of "penance and prayer" for his crimes, but the church leadership hasn't won back Chileans' trust for having covered up Karadima's crimes for so long.

"The Karadima case created a ferocious wound," said Chile's ambassador to the Holy See, Mariano Fernandez Amunategui. He and others inside the Vatican speak openly of a Chilean church "in crisis" as a result, a remarkable admission of the scandal's toll on a church that wielded such political clout that it helped stave off laws legalizing divorce and abortion until recently.

Chileans' disenchantment has even affected their views of the pope himself. A recent survey by Latinobarometro, a respected regional polling firm, found that Chile had a lower esteem for history's first Latin American pope than 18 other Central and South American countries. Even among Chilean Catholics, only 42 percent approve of the job Francis is doing, compared to a regional average of 68 percent.

Women of the feminist collective called La Juaria, protest against the Catholic church and the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, in front of the Santiago Cathedral, in Chile. Photo / AP
Women of the feminist collective called La Juaria, protest against the Catholic church and the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, in front of the Santiago Cathedral, in Chile. Photo / AP

"The serious error of the Catholic Church in the Karadima case wasn't that the case existed, which the church couldn't avoid because it did happen, but rather the way in which the church reacted," said Latinobarometro's Marta Lagos. "The Chilean church leaders hoped that the Vatican would give its verdict — they didn't want to be the ones to accuse Karadima. On the contrary, there was a sort of cover-up and a hiding of the case."

Francis, who has insisted he has "zero tolerance" for abuse, reopened the wounds of the scandal in 2015 when he named one of Karadima's proteges as bishop of the southern diocese of Osorno. Karadima's victims say Bishop Juan Barros knew about the abuse but did nothing, a charge Barros denies.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that Francis had told Chile's bishops that the Vatican was so concerned about the Karadima fallout that it had planned to ask Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops to resign and take a year sabbatical. But the plan fell through, and Francis went through with the appointment of Barros to Osorno, where the controversy has badly divided the diocese.

Several concerned Catholics from Osorno have traveled to Santiago where they have staged small protests in recent days.

Separately, vandals firebombed a handful of Santiago churches and warned that Francis would be next. Never before has such violence and opposition greeted Francis ahead of a foreign visit. In fact, the last time in memory any serious opposition greeted a pope came during uneventful protests over the costs for Pope Benedict XVI's 2010 trip to Britain.

One of the leaflets left at the scene of a torched church defended the cause of the Mapuche, the indigenous group that fought Spanish colonizers for three centuries and today has radical factions demanding the return of ancient lands. Francis will travel to Mapuche territory Wednesday to celebrate a Mass "for the progress of peoples" and lunch with Mapuche representatives.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said recently that the indigenous issue was particularly close to Francis' heart.

"I think it won't be an easy trip, but it will truly be a passionate one," Parolin said.

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