New wave of sexual abuse cases in Chile to hit the vatican. 

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New wave of sexual abuse cases in Chile to hit the vatican.

SANTIAGO, Chile — James Hamilton recalls clearly the time in late April of this year when he traveled to the Vatican to visit Pope Francis and the pontiff shared a story from his earlier visit to Chile. A papal mass held at the port city of Iquique drew a crowd of 90,000, less than half of the 200,000 the pope’s entourage expected.

“The pope looked around and saw there was nobody,” says Hamilton, a physician who was one of the first Chilean victims of clerical sexual abuse during childhood invited to meet the pope. He and two other men allege that the abuses were covered up by the Catholic Church for decades.

“He told me that Iquique was a blow to his heart,” Hamilton says. “The Chilean people told him overwhelmingly: ‘You are not welcome here because the church has pending debts with the abused children of this land.’ That was the message.”

Such public messages are reverberating here in Chile and across the region as the Catholic Church faces its gravest test of followers’ faith.

The resignation of a high-ranking bishop from the Chilean church’s National Commission for the Prevention of Sex Abuses in late May and the pope’s meeting of a new group of victims last weekend capped a turbulent month here for the institution. Earlier in May, every Catholic bishop in the country offered to step down over what Pope Francis has labeled years of “grave negligence” in protecting children.

The offers from more than 30 bishops has drawn global attention because it tests the pope’s ability to enforce the Vatican´s zero-tolerance policy toward sex abuse by clergymen. It also reveals the loss of authority the Chilean Catholic Church has with the public, observers say.

“It is a warning to all the episcopates of the world and a turning point in the way the Catholic Church handles sex abuses,” says José Manuel Vidal, a Spanish Vatican watcher and head of the website Religión Digital. “Until now there has been a resistance to deal with them openly and to treat them as crimes, not (just) sins.”

Around the world, Latin America and Africa have offered bright spots for a church seen as being in decline elsewhere. The May vote in Ireland to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion underscored the waning role of the church in that country. Across Europe, a shrinking number of countries with strict abortion laws shows an increasingly secular continent that views the church as out of step with daily life. In Australia, the most senior Catholic official has been convicted of concealing child sexual abuse in that country in the 1970s. In the United States, a sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese reported in 2002 eventually revealed a pattern of abuse and cover-ups across the country, which in turn led to a global crisis for the Roman Catholic Church.

The pope, a native of Argentina, has hoped the pain of sexual abuse would not spread to Latin America. His January trip to Chile and other South American countries was meant in part to test the willingness within the church establishment to embrace his agenda of reforms.

Such hope in Chile has been damaged by revelations of abuse. Since 2002, about 80 Roman Catholic priests have been reported in the country for alleged sexual abuse. By this past April, leaders of Chile’s Catholic Church called for a “drastic solution” to the abuse allegations.

It is a pain that is especially deep in a country and region where the church has for decades played a focal role in society. By the early 1970s in Chile, for example, the Catholic Church had strong organizations and parishes, buoyed by high public participation. It was an organizational structure that enabled the church to provide a bulwark against the 1973-1990 authoritarian rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet and act as a beacon for human rights, a role that would become familiar for the church in the 1980s in Latin American countries such as El Salvador.

“It was a lively Church, which helped us endure a period of time full of violence,” says Benito Baranda, a prominent social activist who coordinated the pope’s January visit to Chile. “The Church became a shelter. It was more integrated (with) society and it had a more inclusive faith.”

But that power, critics say, may have emboldened priests to believe they could get away with abuse. Over time, the Church “locked itself up,” says Baranda. Conservative bishops took over and progressively established what he calls a “monarchical organization” of power.

The recent years of abuse allegations have also taken a toll on support among Chileans. A report published last January by the research company Latinobarómetro shows trust in the Roman Catholic Church at 71 percent for respondents in Colombia, and 63 percent in Peru. In Chile, the level of trust falls to just 36 percent. Chile also reports a rapidly declining number of people who identify as Catholic, according to Latinobarómetro; 61 percent of citizens in 2010 called themselves Catholic, but by 2017 that figure had dropped to 45 percent.

These rapidly shifting support levels for the church in Chile are primarily due to the case of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, says Marta Lagos, executive director of Latinobarómetro. The priest has been found guilty by the Vatican of abusing dozens of minors over a span of decades. The accusations were the focus of an investigation that led Pope Francis to meet with several of the priest´s victims, including Hamilton, to ask for their forgiveness and summon the entire Chilean episcopate.

Luis Badilla, a Chilean Vatican watcher who is based in Rome, says several of the conservative bishops who rose to power in Chile were Karadima’s friends. “In other countries we’ve seen similar sex abuse cases, but they were isolated to one bishop or one priest,” he says. “In Chile, we’re dealing with the policy of a whole episcopate, where those who were not guilty didn’t have the strength or the courage to stand against what was going on.”

The pope did not help matters in his January visit to Chile, when Francis spoke in defense of a bishop here who Catholics say protected Karadima. The pope’s comments about Bishop Juan Barros Madrid drew heavy criticism that raised questions about the pontiff’s commitment to healing.

“We’ve reached a breaking point,” says Hamilton, the abuse victim who visited the pope. “The question is whether Pope Francis’ austere evangelical spirit will prevail over a cast of personalities who behave as powerful princes.”

The resignation of dozens of bishops may be a start to help the healing. “It is something extraordinary that never happened in the history of the Church,” says Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. “The willingness of all bishops to resign will make many people reflect on what it means to be priests or bishops and to be Church: in the first place it is not a power, but a service to the people of God.”