‘We Don’t Want to Hear Any More Bad News’: Chilean Faithful Cope With Scandal

Despite the sadness and pain, faithful Catholics are trying not to be shaken, and many say the laity must aid Catholic revitalization.

Pilgrims from Chile wait for Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square during the Wednesday general audience Oct. 14, 2015.
Pilgrims from Chile wait for Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square during the Wednesday general audience Oct. 14, 2015. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

In the face of Chile’s ongoing scandals involving the sexual abuse of priests, seminarians and minors — and the cover-up of these abuses — Chilean Catholics are confronting the question of how to live the faith in such troubling times.

“The news throws you to the ground,” said Pia Almarza, a pro-life advocate and member of the Neocatechumenal Way. “Every day there is something new.”

There has been no official coordinated response to the scandals at the national level. But many parishes have organized meetings to listen, discuss the situation and pray. And there have been organized mandatory talks for parish leaders by health professionals. Almarza attended one. At the meetings, the health professionals explain how to detect signs of abuse and how to discuss this topic in the parish. In addition, many parishes have begun to change wooden doors to glass doors.

Letters have been written from some of the country’s Catholic movements like Schoenstatt, asking members to pray for Chile and working toward creating internal commissions to make sure nothing like this happens again. The Chilean bishops are widely in disarray, given that all of them resigned in June. They are waiting to hear if all of their resignations have been accepted by Pope Francis (he has accepted five resignations so far).

When the scandals began in 2011, with the news of Father Fernando Karadima’s serial sexual and psychological abuse, many faithful Catholics were shaken. Father Karadima was a priest who had brought scores of vocations to the priesthood. He had personally trained about 50 priests, with several of his proteges becoming bishops. Many people thought the accusations against him were not true. Yet when the reality of what had happened began to sink in among faithful Catholics, all were shocked.

Pope Francis’ visit to Chile in January 2018 brought more accusations and stories of abuse into the press. Since then, there has been an avalanche of accusations toward other priests and bishops; some for abuse and others for cover-ups. Not all the accusations have been corroborated. The Chilean press — no fan of the Catholic Church — has been “having a party” covering the scandal, according to one source.

“There is a lot of pain from the things that have happened, for those who have suffered, for the victims. There are many stories: some that are true, and others are of people who are taking advantage of the situation to attack the Church. This is nothing new. But it is evident that things have happened, or else the bishops would not have resigned,” said Hernán Carvallo, the principal of an Opus Dei high school in Viña del Mar, Chile.

When Almarza first heard the news with her husband, the two felt that they should not be scandalized.

“I am not a saint. I have many flaws and weaknesses, so I try not to judge,” said Almarza. “But I do think things have been handled in a poor way. There was little concern for the victims. I understand that the hierarchy did not believe in the beginning, because Karadima was regarded as a very respected person, having fostered so many vocations. But we have a saying here in Chile: ‘If a river makes a lot of noise, it is because it is carrying stones,’ and the Church and the people have started paying attention to those signals.”

Chilean Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati’s reputation with the pro-life movement has been damaged over allegations he covered up the abuse. Pro-lifers contend his lack of concern for the country’s pro-life movement led to a losing effort to keep abortion criminalized in August 2017.

People feel that if these abuses have occurred, it is better for everything to come out.

“When you have an infection, you need to have surgery and get everything out before it infects the bones. Everything needs to come to the light,” Almarza said. “We, as part of the Church, need to contribute to this change by supporting victims in speaking out and finding the truth. God, in his mercy, is leading this process of bringing everything out.”

“People like me, who are perhaps more conservative, want things to be clearer. In the end, the Church may get smaller, but those who remain will be more convinced,” said Teresita Dominguez, a mother of five and a member of the Catholic Schoenstatt movement and Catholic Voices in Chile.

Practicing Catholics continue to cling to their faith. Among those interviewed who participate in Chile’s considerably strong ecclesial movements or pastoral programs, none have witnessed a mass exodus out of the Church.

“Catholics on the peripheries who were barely practicing have stopped,” said Andres Lanas, a member of the Schoenstatt movement. “But when we go to Mass on Sunday, our parish is still packed. I don’t know a single person who was practicing the faith who has stopped going to Mass.”

The issue, according to his wife, Maria Luisa Rojas, is Who one’s faith is in.

“We go to Mass for Christ, not for the priest. Some people put their faith in the priest, and when you see them fail — as people did with Karadima — they say, ‘Why go?’ They stay home,” said Rojas.

Yet the question remains for many Catholics of how to react during these times when the reputation of the Church is tarnished. Innocent priests are finding themselves yelled at when they walk down the street by passersby.

“On one hand, there is anger, especially for those under 40. They want change, and they want it fast. They are angry with Archbishop Ezzati because he covered up the abuse. People want him out, and they are angry because change is slow,” said Dominguez.

People are upset with the fact that Father Karadima, though he was forced to resign, ceased to appear as a priest in public and lives alone, is still a priest who can say Mass privately.

“It hurts me that Father Karadima is still a priest. I can’t believe it. He lives in a home, with few visitors, but can still say Mass for himself. This bothers me. The punishments were not enough or proportionate to the acts and damage done. I would have liked something stronger,” said Rocio Casal, an Argentine woman who has been living in Chile for eight years and working for Radio Maria Chile for five years.

One of the major problems in Chile was a cultural belief that priests could do no wrong. Another problem seems to be a lack of humility among some bishops.

“Bishops need to be humble and be of service to others. They are very far from the people. They need to be simple and get involved in the lives of families. The first bishops were the apostles. They didn’t have fancy clothes, homes and special lunches in their honor. Today, they have become princes. This is totally opposed to what Jesus wanted. He would say they went the wrong way,” said Dominguez.

Another problem is the lack of oversight for priests once they are ordained.

“In any profession, you are evaluated every few years to see if you are still suitable,” said Dominguez. “Priests are ordained and sent to parishes and totally abandoned by their bishops. They are lonely. No one is checking to see if they are doing a good job.”

Despite the sadness and pain of the present moment, faithful Catholics are trying not to be shaken.

“My feeling is that I have a lot of hope in light of what has happened,” said Casal. “Things came out that we did not know. It was very painful. But when you touch the bottom, you can resurrect again, in a good sense. The question now is: How long before Chile’s Church resurrection?”

Many say that the laity must play a major role in the revitalization of the Church in Chile.

“I think that we, the laity, need to take charge,” said Dominguez. “Each person needs to build where they find themselves. We need to pray and ask God where he wants us. We need to hold our heads up high and not hide. We need to listen to others, but then tell them the Good News and spread it.”

Dominguez notes that Chile is full of Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable organizations that are still doing wonderful things.

“While some people are doing damage to the Church, there are others who are building it up,” she said.

Finally, if change is to come to Chile’s Church, it has to be done correctly. This means it cannot be done fast.

“I think it should be done slowly, or else people will make mistakes,” said Dominguez.

Through the Neocatechumenal Way — a pastoral program for adults that operates through parishes — Almarza helps to organize days of catechesis.

“I usually get worried that no one will come, and yet there are always people joining the catechesis, every year,” she said. “I think that God is asking us to be simple, more pure, with less adornments, and go the essentials of Jesus Christ. In the Easter season, we go to plazas in Santiago with families, youths, rich and poor, with guitars.”

“Jesus breaks the barriers. People come near us and can’t believe the Catholic Church is so alive. We sing. We dance. We pray. We do processions with the cross. People give personal testimonies. People get impacted,” Almarza said.

“What is needed now is new people with coherence of faith,” Casal said. “We can’t wait for everything to be done by priests. Now, the laity cannot wait on the sidelines. In order to go forward, the Church needs the laity.”

(Everyone interviewed for this article is giving their personal opinion and not an official opinion of

their Catholic movement or pastoral program to which they belong in Chile.)

Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.

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