Pope Francis announced this week he would accept the resignation of three Chilean bishops, in an ongoing scandal that has grown into a national crisis. Nearly 80 Catholic clergy across the country have been accused of sexually abusing minors over decades, and more have been implicated in the coverup. Jeffrey Brown reports from Santiago, Chile.
Now, an extraordinary crisis for the Catholic Church and test for the pope himself.
This week, Pope Francis announced that he would accept the resignation of three bishops in the South American country of Chile. Two days later, Chilean police made surprise raids on church offices.
It is all part of an ongoing child abuse scandal that began in 2010 and continues to reverberate across Latin America and beyond.
Jeffrey Brown reports from Santiago, Chile.
Jaime Concha says he was just 10 years old when the abuse began.
Jaime Concha (through translator):
There are six adults who abused me again, repeatedly and systematically, between the year 1973 and 1979. It's as if a pack, a tribe, a group of sexual predators had attacked me time and time again. And that for me was almost like a murder. I felt they as if they had murdered me.
At the time, he was a fifth-grader at this Catholic school in Santiago. It took more than 40 years before Concha was able to speak publicly about what happened.
A victim of sexual abuse doesn't speak when he wants. He speaks when he can, because our victimizers silence us. I have been able to heal by seeing that my suffering became meaningful in the search for justice.
Other victims are also speaking out, and, today, nearly 80 Catholic clergy across Chile have been accused of sexually abusing minors over the last several decades.
The child abuse scandal here has grown into a national crisis, in a country where the church has historically been one of the most powerful institutions.
Paulina de Allende-Salazar (through translator):
We began with a horrific story that was hard to believe, and, today, it's become a cultural problem, a problem about our social structure.
In 2010, investigative journalist Paulina de Allende Salazar received a tip that sexual abuse and cover-up had been rampant within the Chilean church for decades.
The reaction was hard, especially for the faithful, especially for the ones who blindly believed in the Catholic Church.
Her reporting uncovered widespread abuse by Father Fernando Karadima of Santiago, a widely respected and powerful priest who many felt would one day be declared a saint by the church.
Fernando Karadima was the tip of the iceberg that uncovered a system of sexual abuse. He trained bishops under his own structure, a conservative and rigid one that abused its power.
Jose Andres Murillo, now 43, claimed Father Karadima sexually abused him in the 1990s while he trained to become a priest. He says many Chileans initially refused to believe the allegations.
How were you treated? What were you called?
Jose Andres Murillo (through translator):
We were gays, or enemies of the church, or trying to destroy the morale and the ethics of our country. It was very, very, very hard.
In 2011, Father Karadima, then 80, was found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing young boys. He was forced to retire and sentenced by the church to a lifetime of penance and prayer, but he never faced criminal charges because of Chile's statute of limitation laws.
Public perception, however, has slowly changed, as more allegations of abuse came to light. And the scandal has clearly had an impact. Today, just 36 percent of Chileans say they trust the church, and the number who identify as Catholic is down from 61 percent in 2010 to 45 percent last year.
There is a powerful church that still today doesn't understand what happened. It doesn't understand the damage it caused.
When Pope Francis came to Chile in January, he clearly hoped to begin to repair the damage. Instead, he was forced to address his own appointment of Juan Barros as a bishop in 2015, a move that came after Barros had been accused of witnessing and covering up the sexual abuses committed by Father Karadima.
Barros has denied the allegations. Francis initially defended Barros, going so far as to charge his accusers with slander.
Pope Francis (through translator):
The investigation of Barros went on, but no evidence came out. For this reason, what I meant is that I can't condemn him, because I don't have evidence, and because I am convinced he is innocent.
But the pope's comments drew outrage in Chile and beyond, spurring him to order a new investigation into the extent of abuse.
Its findings led Francis to issue an extraordinary apology, citing his own — quote — "serious errors of judgment and perception of the situation."
In May, he summoned all of Chile's bishops to Rome and later invited the three original accusers of Father Karadima to come to the Vatican to ask their forgiveness.
Jose Andres Murillo:
Never in my life I would think I would be invited by the pope to the Vatican to talk to him. That was unthinkable. I thought that I would have, like, 15 or 20 minutes to talk to him. Afterwards, we talked during two hours about the abuse of power.
Were you satisfied with what he told you?
I'm satisfied with what I told him.
With what you told him?
Yes, yes, because that's what I can control.
Soon after, all 34 of Chile's bishops offered to resign.
At a news conference in late May that we attended, one of them, Bishop Fernando Ramos, read a letter from the pope that promised the church would — quote — "never again ignore the cover-up of abuse."
I spoke with Bishop Ramos afterwards.
How serious a crisis is this for the Chilean church?
Bishop Fernando Ramos (through translator):
I think it's a very serious crisis. Our relationship with the Chilean society is being seen through these situations, and not around what our mission is.
Abuse, cover-up, indifference, from the church itself, do you accept all of this now?
I can't say that the whole church is abuse and cover-up. I think that would be unfair. But, nevertheless, there is and there have been, in the church, situations of abuse and cover-up, which is why we have to work intensely to overcome it.
But Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesperson for a lay Catholic group formed in the wake of the abuse scandal, says more direct action is required.
Juan Carlos Claret (through translator):
We have to recognize that the Chilean government, in regards to protecting children, has very weak laws. What concerns us about the bishops' resignations is that a resignation en masse may end up dissolving their criminal responsibility.
For this reason, we have formally demanded that, if the pope reveals that there are bishops who have committed crimes, such as the destruction of evidence, they are turned over to justice.
Last month, Chile's President Sebastian Pinera presented a bill that would remove the statute of limitations on sex crimes.
Jamie Concha and other victims have recently filed criminal complaints against three Catholic priests and other members of the church.
We want the criminals to be where they need to be — that's jail — and there be no impunity.
On a recent Sunday morning in Santiago, many pews in this church were empty. But some congregants here said the crisis could offer a new way forward.
Miguel Angel Diaz (through translator):
This is a great chance for the pope to give us the church that we really need at this time. This situation is in no way the end of the church.
Ana Maria Repic (through translator):
I pray for the pope, because I hope he acts as he should, with strength. And I think that all of us who are faithful support him in that sense.
Eight years after first going public, Jose Andres Murillo no longer considers himself a Catholic. He now heads a foundation that offers training to those who work with children, investigates new charges of abuse, and helps victims slowly recover their lives.
Now the meaning of my life is to fight against the child sexual abuse. And the church is in charge of almost 200 million of children in the world. And I owe them the right to develop their faith free of abuse.
This week, the pope announced he would accept the resignations of Bishop Juan Barros and two other bishops. In response, Jose Andres Murillo told us he hopes all victims will now feel safe to speak out and will receive justice.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Santiago, Chile.
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Jeffrey Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS NewsHour.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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