SEX ABUSE FALLOUT | Pope orders takeover of Peruvian Catholic group, faces protests in Chile over ‘pedophile coddler’

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Pope Francis arrives to lead the general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican. (photo by Max Rossi, Reuters)

VATICAN/SANTIAGO — Pope Francis has ordered the takeover of an elite Peruvian Catholic society whose founder is accused of sexually and physically abusing children and former members, even as Chileans protesting the appointment of a bishop accused of protecting an alleged pedophile threaten to cast a shadow over the pontiff’s visit to South America next week.

The Vatican said the pope had appointed an administrator to run Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), whose founder, Luis Figari, a layman, is scheduled to go on trial in Peru later this year for the sexual abuse of minors. Figari has denied wrongdoing.

The move, announced by the Vatican on Wednesday, is the latest in a saga that has damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church in Peru and comes a week before Francis is set to make his first visit as pope to that country and Chile.

Victims of sexual abuse say he has not done enough to put a stop to it. The credibility of a commission he formed in 2014 has been severely damaged by the defections of senior members who accused the Vatican of dragging its feet.

An internal report by the group last year concluded that Figari, who founded the group in 1971 and headed it until 2010, and three other high-ranking former members had abused 19 minors and 10 adults.

Most of the alleged cases took place between the 1970s and 2000.

A statement on the group’s website said it welcomed the pope’s intervention and promised full cooperation with his administrator. “We once again reaffirm our absolute obedience to the Holy Father and Holy Mother Church,” it said.

Peruvian authorities opened an investigation into Figari in 2015 following the publication of a book on the abuse allegations by Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Pao Ugaz.

Salinas himself once belonged to the ultra-conservative Sodalitium, whose members include businessmen, writers and politicians from Peru’s upper classes and which was founded as part of a backlash against “Liberation Theology,” which took the side of the poor.

Salinas said he was skeptical about whether the takeover would translate into real reform. “So far, we’ve seen gestures, damage control and maneuvers to protect the Church’s reputation,” Salinas said in a Reuters TV interview.

In Chile, parishioners in Osorno, a small city 800 kilometers (497 miles) south of the capital, say Vatican representatives denied their requests to meet with Francis. They plan to protest every day of the Pope’s January 15-18 stay in Chile.

Pope Francis, who hails from neighboring Argentina and once briefly lived in Chile, has defended Osorno Bishop Juan Barros and says allegations that he covered up abuses by one of Chile’s most notorious sexual predators were unfounded.

“We believe the victims of sexual abuse have been marginalized (by the Church),” said Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesman for Osorno parishioners. “It’s a reality that we in Osorno have been living with for almost four years and we plan to keep the issue alive.”

Protests will kick off during the Pope’s public appearances in the Chilean capital on Tuesday, dimming the gleam of the first leg of his return to Latin America, where he is especially popular. The trip will also take him to neighboring Peru.

“This is an otherwise remarkable pope who has obviously done a tremendous amount of good in the Catholic Church. But when it comes to the issue of child sexual abuse, he is as recalcitrant as any old-school bishop,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Boston-based research group BishopAccountability.org.

A database compiled by the group and published on its website Wednesday lists nearly 70 Chilean priests, deacons, religious bothers and a nun who have been accused of molesting children, including some that remain in active ministry.

While other groups are likely to protest during the Pope’s trip, particularly indigenous Mapuche in central Chile who criticize the church for visiting ancestral lands they say were confiscated, the Osorno critique and the focus on sexual abuse is lobbied directly at Francis.

In 2015, the Pope inflamed tensions and shocked even his many admirers, when he told a group of tourists at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City that the community of Osorno “suffered for being dumb.” He said the accusations against Barros had been cooked up by leftists.

The accused priest, Father Fernando Karadima, has denied allegations of abuse and the bishop said he was unaware of any wrongdoing.

A 2011 Vatican investigation found Karadima guilty of abusing teenage boys over many years and ordered him to retire to a “life of prayer and penitence.”

Barros has long drawn suspicions from many Chileans because of his close links with Karadima. Both were members of a priestly society in Santiago and Karadima served as Barros’ mentor during the bishop’s youth.

At least one of Karadima’s alleged victims has said that Barros was present during the sexual abuse.

Claret said Barros, who continues to serve as Bishop in Osorno, surrounded by volcanoes and lakes in a remote region of northern Patagonia, has divided the community and made healing for abuse victims impossible.

“Within our group, there are victims of sexual abuse. They feel betrayed by the Church,” Claret said.

Claret said that his group had sold empanadas, a traditional Chilean pastry, since August to help pay for as many as 30 parishioners to go to the Santiago protests.

For Doyle, who plans to attend the demonstrations, the Chile situation is unique in the context of the global sexual abuse crisis that enveloped the Church for nearly two decades.

“I have never seen a reaction as powerful and anguished as the people of Osorno against this bishop,” she said.