Chile wrestles with religion and impunity


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In 2005, the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of the Catholic Church of Chile received several serious charges against one of its most celebrated priests. And nothing happened. 

This time the accused is Fernando Karadima, 80 years old, parish priest at one of the most important churches, chaplain of an upper-class high school, and founder of the Catholic Action movement.  Five of Chile's current Catholic bishops passed through Karadima-headed institutions. 

The charge against Karadima is that he abused a young man in the 1980s, a young man who has gone on to become an outstanding doctor.  The case was shelved, however, shortly after passing through the hands of sitting archbishopn of Santiágo, Francisco Javier Errázuriz.

Eight months ago, the world shook from the case of Mexican priest Marciel Maciel.  TVN's "Informe Especial" (Special Report) broadcast a report that mesmerized the audience with the in-depth look at the hidden story of the Mexican founder of the Legions of Christ.  

The next day, journalist Paulina de Allende Salazar got a call saying, "In Chile, we also have a Maciel."

"Check it out," the voice said. 

From that moment, "Informe Especial" launched a journalistic investigation that concluded just two weeks ago.  TVN again revealed shocking details, this time charging that the Catholic Church had refused to investigate Karadima's alleged abuses, despite five tesimonies against him. 

As the Karadima saga shows, Chile has not escaped the troubles caused by the Catholic Church's handling of the global scandal of pedophilia and abuse, and its failure to care for the victims. 

The Karadima case has set off a fierce debate in Chile about the impunity that those high up in the Catholic hierarchy enjoy.  As recently as the mid-1990s, then bishop of La Serena (a city about 200 miles north of Santiago) Francisco José Cox, was forced to resign his post.  Cox was transfered to Colombia after it became public that had been abusing young boys for years. 

The Church said Cox was transfered due to "inappropriate behavior".  Chile's legal system, meanwhile, never even learned of the charges against Cox. 

In Chile, the bishops and cardinals are genuine social authorities and are accorded special respect, though that social standing has been damaged in the scandal.  The priesthood defends its application of ecclesiastical justice, separate from and in some ways "above" the civil code, due to the fact that "it is older than the Chilean state."  


The Public Ministry, or attorney general's office, named special prosecutor Xavier Armendáriz to take over the Karamadi case, now that it has found its way into the Chilean civil system. 

"The law will not show favoritism.  The office of the accused will not influence this investigation," Armendáriz stated. 

Of course, the fact that the prosecutor made the disclaimer is evidence that Chileans expect the opposite.  Most people believe that priests - especially one of the most powerful - are not just like any other normal, average citizen and likely won't face the same penalties as an average citizen.  If the media and the public do not follow this case closely and keep the pressure on, there is no guarantee of sanctions. 

Deputies, senators, and well-known politicians have come forward to defend the principle of "innocent until proven guilty".  The public, however, condemned Karadima the moment they saw the tears of James Hamilton, this presitigious doctor and father of a prosperous family, revealing on camera in lurid detail the abuses he suffered at 17 years of age. 

Cardinal Erráruriz, ashamed of his decision to ignore the case five years ago, said only, "I had no evidence with which to pursue an investigation at the time." 

The victims meanwhile complain that no one in the Catholic Church listened to their stories, much less believed them - that is, until the press took their stories public.