Holy Negligence

Chilean Catholic Church

By Annie Cheng


[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ven though the Catholic Church has been a centuries-long enduring institution in Latin America, rampant pedophilia scandals are leading some of the region’s states—such as Chile—to denounce their historical religiosity.

The Catholic Church, first introduced through forced conversion to the “New World” by Spanish colonizers, remains a powerful presence in many Latin American communities. La Iglesia forms and had formed a cornerstone of everyday life, with different cultures often adopting saints of choice. People go to mass on Sundays, are baptized at birth, and attend Catholic schools (the very best of local education).

The recent decline of Chilean religious following can be attributed to several factors including growing globalization and an increase of interaction with other cultures. Even so, one main cause of this national rejection—prominent among the youth—is the shocking series of decades-long revelations on sexual abuse.

In May 2018, every single one of Chile’s 31 bishops offered to resign from the Church. Prior to the mass resignation, Pope Francis himself was doubtful of the pedophilia. He then called upon Maltese Bishop Charles Scicluna to investigate, which led to the creation of a document of over 2,300 pages based on witness testimonies.

According to the contents of this report, generations of survivors have suffered for decades, often silenced and discredited. The bishops who were not abusers themselves were involved in extensive cover-ups ranging from a relocation of abusers to plain denial. Some were charged with destroying key documents that would confirm the survivors’ experience and suffering.

Pope Francis blamed the seminaries and other Chilean institutions of priestly training for perpetrating and propagating the collective mentality of abuse and denial. But ultimately, what happened at the core was exactly as Francis described: “grave negligence.”

The negligence occurred in several ways beyond the stunning extent of the abuse itself. First, the survivors were shamed into secrecy or silence. Then, those who received reports chose not to go to the police.  But the most intricately kept secrets of all were the names of the abusers, the identities and the circumstances of the molestations, all of which were guarded by a national network of 34 bishops in order to protect the holy Church.

The most infamous cases concerns that of prominent survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who was abused for years at the hands of then Reverend Fernando Karadima, the most notorious pedophile of the Chilean church. Back in 2010 when Cruz first came forward along with three fellow Chilean survivors, he told the New York Times, “This man had total power over me. I just wanted to commit suicide but I wasn’t brave enough to do it and I didn’t want to do that to my mother.” Reverend Karadima was highly influential within the church and beloved by his followers. He had been described as a living saint up until his conviction by the Vatican a year after. Later, he was protected by his equals including the Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, amongst others. Pope Francis had long defended this bishop and others against the word of survivors who asserted Barros’ complicity in covering up the crimes before the truth came out in the extensive report. Francis has since apologized directly to Cruz and other victims in-person, as reported in the New York Times, the Guardian and other publications, lamenting the “grave errors” and “irreparable damage” while acknowledging that “[he] was part of the problem.”

As the highest institution of understood moral righteousness in Latin America, the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church strengthens the ability to self-evaluate and govern. Although issues of corruption due to political ties are not new to the institution —perhaps even the founding origins of all world religions—this level of obscuration proves especially noxious and alarming in a contemporary social environment. If the Church intends to claim moral authority, it must overcome the undercurrents of secrecy that prevailed in societies old. Markers of a more equitable society include transparency and accountability; the religious nature of the Catholic Church no longer protects it from the same scrutiny currently exercised towards other powerful institutions of both similar and dissimilar nature.

Special prosecutors are currently still deployed in Chile to confirm and identify the potential survivors that number over 200. As of 24 July 2018, 158 members of the Chilean Roman Catholic Church have been investigated for perpetration or negligence. The vast majority—178—of survivors were underage at the time of the abuse, thus increasing the charges of violence and negligence against the church.


The tensions against the Catholic Church were obvious during Pope Francis’ January 2018 visit to Santiago, Chile. Normally, a papal visit is one celebrated by the masses through endless waves of parades. Everyone clamors to see the procession, holding signs of adoration and chanting in solidarity as a Catholic people.

This year, stymied by the sexual abuse scandal, the streets of the 6 plus million-strong capital were quite unbothered. The relative lack of fanfare was especially prominent because Francis is the Church’s first Latin American pope. While other countries such as Francis’ home country of Argentina and Peru still received him with generally open arms, Chilean fury emerged in the form of protests.

Prior to the visit, three churches were firebombed. Activists graffitied denunciatory messages on the walls, marched with signs, and demanded more papal action. Some described the pope as an accomplice of crimes and pedophiles (“Francisco, complice de crimenes/pedofilos”), some bore names of the more well-known survivors, while others said simply: “Renuncia [resign]”. Now, after renouncing his denial, making repeated apologies and accepting the resignations of the bishops, popular opinion of the Pope and the Church continues to wane.

Cruz has since been framed as one of the most vocal opponents against the Catholic Church, although he notes the sincerity of papal efforts to apologize and reform in an April 2018 interview with the New York Times. Once dreaming of becoming a priest, he realized that his seminary, as well as the national community of the Roman Catholic Church, were inextricably toxic and abusive environments.

This man, Father Karadima, was abusing kids and young people from 1958 through 2010 or 11. I was there eight years, in this setting, under his spell…when we were in Karadima’s room, and he would say, now everybody out. Everybody knew what happened after that. But nobody ever spoke about it.”

Through the bravery of early survivors and those who are continuing to come out now, the church’s reputation as a whole has begun to tumble faster and faster; Cruz shook the foundation a decade ago and new reports begin to reveal more and more cracks in the centuries-old institution. It can no longer retain the same moral superiority it used to in the region and the world in general.

The youth-driven movements continue to criticize the extent of church abuse and immerse deeper into globalization processes. Combined with growing secularization, the once mighty Catholic character of Chile and other Latin American nations is beginning to disappear. The question, now, is whether La Iglesia will recover from these shattering changes. Will even traditional religious institutions be held accountable to modern-day value sets and governance standards? Can Catholic leadership reform concerns of transparency and abuse in efforts to win back devotees? Or, and perhaps this is more likely, the horrific scandal was only an exacerbator for an already increasing tide of secularization in Latin America.


Annie Cheng is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact her at annie.cheng@yale.edu.