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Anger Over Clerical Sex Abuse Awaits Pope in Chile

14 Jan 2018 12:00 pm
By Ryan Dube in Osorno, Chile, and Francis X. Rocca in Vatican City 

Pope Francis' three-day visit to Chile will draw attention to what activists describe as one of the most conspicuous weaknesses of his nearly five-year-old pontificate: his failure to take enough action to protect children from clerical sex abuse and punish priests for perpetrating it.

When the Argentine pope arrives in Santiago Monday to begin his sixth visit to Latin America, he will set down in a traditionally Catholic country where revelations of clerical sex abuse have damaged the image of the church, and where the pope's handling of the problem has drawn particular criticism.

"His record is a disaster," said Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean sex-abuse victim and an organizer of protests planned for the pope's visit. "People are absolutely disgusted with the way he's handled abuse and how he's treated us."

In an apparently unrelated development, three Catholic churches in Santiago were firebombed on Friday, with a note left at one of them threatening the pope by saying "the next bombings will be in your soutane," referring to a priest's cassock. The Vatican Embassy, where the pope is set to stay, was also occupied by people protesting the cost to the Chilean state of the pope's trip. Authorities said they were investigating the bombings, which Police Chief Gonzalo Araya said may have been orchestrated by anarchist groups accused in the past of detonating small, homemade bombs at ATMs and subway stations and on streets in the capital.

The sex-abuse scandal centers on the Rev. Fernando Karadima, an influential priest in Santiago who ministered to Chile's elite in the capital and was accused in 2010 of having molested minors, including Mr. Cruz, over the course of decades.

After a Vatican inquiry concluded in 2011 that Fr. Karadima was guilty of abusing minors, he was ordered to a life of prayer and penitence.

Accusations of abuse were also lodged that year with civil authorities. A Chilean court declined to prosecute the case, citing a statute of limitations that put allegations dating back to 1980 outside the law's reach.

Fr. Karadima is still living in the capital, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Santiago. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. In a 2015 court appearance in Santiago, he insisted on his innocence of all sex-abuse charges.

Pope Francis was drawn into the scandal in 2015, when he appointed Bishop Juan Barros to lead the diocese of Osorno, located in Chile's sparsely populated southern region of Patagonia. Bishop Barros had served as a parish priest under Fr. Karadima in Santiago. Former members of his congregation in the capital later accused him of witnessing and failing to report Fr. Karadima's abuses there.

Bishop Barros has denied knowledge of Fr. Karadima's actions. Neither he nor officials in the diocese of Osorno responded to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

During the bishop's first Mass in Osorno in early 2015, laypeople protested his appointment with black balloons and calls for him to resign.

Pope Francis dismissed the Osorno protesters that year as "foolish," saying their accusations were politically motivated and urging protesters not to "be led by the nose by the leftists."

A Vatican spokesman said on Thursday there was no proof of wrongdoing by the bishop and declined to comment further.

The Rev. Hans Zollner, a member of the Vatican's commission on child protection, which the pope established in 2014, disputed accusations that the pope has been insensitive on the issue. Pope Francis has demonstrated a deep commitment to fight sex abuse and "has spoken up so many times" about the problem, Fr. Zollner said.

Opinion research suggests the church's image in Chile has suffered in the wake of the Karadima scandal. Since the case broke in 2010, confidence in the church among Chileans has dropped to 34% from 67%, according to the Latinobarometro polling service.

"We thought [the pope] was going to bring about a real change. But after a while, we realized that his promises were just public relations," said José Murillo, another Chilean who says he was abused by Fr. Karadima.

Mario Vargas, a spokesman for the Lay Organization in Osorno, which has led efforts to have Bishop Barros removed from the diocese, said the group plans to demonstrate during Pope Francis' visit to Santiago. The group has asked for a meeting with the pope during his visit to the capital, as has a group of Fr. Karadima's victims. The Vatican spokesman said Thursday no meeting with victims was scheduled but didn't rule one out.

Joining protesters in Santiago will be a former member of the Vatican's commission for the protection of minors, Peter Saunders, who resigned from the body last month after extensively criticizing Pope Francis, including for his appointment of Bishop Barros.

Mr. Saunders was one of two sex-abuse victims on the Vatican panel. The other resigned in March, blaming Vatican officials -- though not Pope Francis himself -- for failing to act on key recommendations from the commission, including the establishment of a special court to try bishops accused of covering up abuse.

In September, the pope said the church had awakened to sex-abuse "crimes in a delayed manner," suggesting church leaders had "put our consciousness to sleep" by transferring abuser priests to other assignments instead of disciplining them.

Controversy of sex abuse may follow the pope to Peru, the second and final leg of his seven-day Latin American visit.

On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that it was taking over the Catholic society Sodalitum Christianae Vitae, which was founded in Lima in the 1970s by Luis Figari, a conservative intellectual who was accused of rape and other abuse in a 2015 book.

In January 2017, the Vatican ruled that accusations of sex abuse were credible and ordered that Mr. Figari cut ties with Sodalitum. His Peruvian lawyer said Mr. Figari denies any wrongdoing.

Write to Ryan Dube at ryan.dube@dowjones.com and Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 14, 2018 07:00 ET (12:00 GMT)

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