Chilean archdiocese: court judgement for sex abuse victims a step toward reform

Santiago, Chile, Mar 28, 2019 / 06:24 pm (CNA).- The Santiago archdiocese has accepted a court ruling that the Catholic Church in Chile must compensate victims of former priest and serial sex abuser Fernando Karadima, voicing hope the action can help restore trust and prevent further mishandling of abuse.

The Santiago archbishop’s office said it would not appeal the decision, saying the ruling “marks an important step in our process of re-establishing justice and trust in our Church of Santiago, because it points directly to the errors that we made in this case.”

The appeals court in Santiago unanimously ruled that the Church owes “moral damages” to abuse victims Juan Carlos Cruz, Jose Andres Murillo, and James Hamilton, and must pay them $146,000 each, the Associated Press reports.

The victims said they were sexually abused by Karadima, an influential Santiago-area priest who for decades led a lay movement from his parish. He is considered to have personally fostered around 40 vocations to the priesthood.

The archdiocese said the ruling excluded a cover-up of abuse by the archbishop, but attributed responsibility to the institution for errors recognized “from the beginning” in how complaints were processed, their “inadequate evaluation,” and the “lack of accompaniment” shown towards victims.

It voiced hope the ruling will “contribute to healing the suffering of Fernando Karadima’s victims.”

The court ruling cited “negligence” in the Church’s official investigation of abuse reports, saying church authorities “discarded” the reports instead of considering whether they had elements of truth.

“Today, the Chilean state puts on the record that all institutions are guarantors and should protect the rights of its citizens. And that no one, however powerful they might be, can abuse and cover-up sexual abuses with impunity,” said Hamilton, one of Karadima’s victims.

The archdiocese said the ruling shows the necessity “to make deep reforms” to prevent other failures. The ruling could mean many more civil lawsuits against the Church, Reuters reports.

Although Karadima was not charged under civil law due to statutes of limitations, he was found guilty in 2011 of sexual abuse of minors by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At that time he was sentenced to a life of penance and prayer, and barred from from any public exercise of ministry. Pope Francis dismissed Karadima from the clerical state in September 2018.

The former priest is now 88-years-old and living in a nursing home in Santiago. He has denied the accusations of sexual abuse.

Karadima’s abuse became the focus of attention in Chile after the 2015 appointment of one of his protégés, Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid, who at the time headed the Military Ordinariate of Chile, to a new position Bishop of Osorno. Barros had been accused of covering up Karadima’s abuses.

Pope Francis initially defended Barros, saying he had received no evidence of the bishop's guilt, and called accusations against him “calumny” during a trip to Chile in January. He later sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to investigate the situation in Chile.

After receiving Scicluna's report, the pope apologized, said that he had been seriously mistaken, and asked to meet the country's bishops and some survivors in person.

In May 2018 he met with Chile’s bishops and asked all of them to offer their resignations, to be accepted or rejected later. He rebuked them for systemic cover-up of clerical abuse and called them to make deep changes.

Chilean officials have investigated 120 allegations of sexual abuse or cover-ups involving 167 Church officials or church workers, Reuters reports.

On March 22 Pope Frances accepted the resignation of Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the 77-year-old Archbishop of Santiago. He is the eighth Chilean bishop to have his resignation accepted since last May.

The reason for the pope’s decision was not stated, but some news reports placed it in the context of the abuse scandal. However, the cardinal was also two years past the retirement age of 75 set by Church law.

The cardinal has come under scrutiny by Chilean authorities for the possible cover-up of the crimes of abusive priests Fernando Karadima, Rigoberto Tito Rivera Muñoz, and Oscar Muñoz Toledo. He denies covering up any abuse.

Chilean police raided several archdiocesan offices last summer after Father Rigoberto Tito Rivera Muñoz was linked to a suspected network of 14 abuser-priests in the Diocese of Rancagua. In August 2018 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found the priest guilty of sexual abuse of adults. In 2015 he had sexually assaulted a man who was about 40 years old in a room of Santiago’s cathedral.

A different priest, Fr. Oscar Muñoz Toledo, the former chancellor of the Santiago archdiocese, was arrested in July 2018 following allegations he sexually abused minors.

Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, who was Archbishop of Santiago from 1998-2010, immediately before Cardinal Ezzati, in November 2018 said he left Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals in what he characterized as the end of his term.

Cardinal Errazuriz is accused of covering up sex abuse. Some of Karadima’s victims have filed a complaint charging that he gave false testimony for the case.

He has also been accused of misinforming Pope Francis about Bishop Barros’ alleged role in covering up abuse,

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