Catholic Church in Chile weakened by scandal
By PETER PRENGAMAN
Jan. 19, 2018 at 11:50 p.m.
SANTIAGO, Chile — When Pope Francis arrived in Chile's capital Monday, he found a weakened Roman Catholic Church.
As in many Latin American countries, the church in Chile has been losing followers to both evangelical faiths and increasing secularism.
The shift has been exacerbated by a priest sex abuse scandal, and many Chileans are put off by the church's influence in keeping tight restrictions in social matters like marriage and abortion. Here are some of the contributing factors to the Chilean church's problems.
Sex abuse scandals
Always well dressed, the Rev. Fernando Karadima seemed an ideal priest among the elite in Santiago. But he had a dark side, sexually abusing dozens of minors over decades while church superiors either looked the other way or covered up for him.
Allegations against Karadima went back to the 1980s, but the full weight of his actions didn't become widely known until victims went public in 2010. In 2011, the Vatican found him guilty of sexually abusing minors.
The statute of limitations had passed for him to be tried criminally, though, and Karadima's only punishment was being sent by the church to a convent to spend the rest of his life in prayer, angering many Chileans. He is there to this day.
Pope's controversial appointment
In 2015, Pope Francis set off an uproar by appointing the Rev. Juan Barros as bishop in the southern city of Osorno. Barros had been a protege of Karadima, working with him for years when the abuses were taking place.
Barros has always denied that he knew what Karadima was doing, but many parishioners in Osorno objected to his appointment.
When protests erupted, Francis dug in. At one point, the pope said that the "people of Osorno are suffering because of stupidity" and that there was no proof of wrongdoing by Barros.
Yet Francis was well aware that Barros' appointment would cause strife.
In a 2015 letter recently obtained by The Associated Press, Francis contemplated sending Barros and two other Karadima-trained bishops on yearlong sabbaticals, a decision he didn't ultimately take.
Bishops then and now
During Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship, thousands of people were killed or disappeared, and any dissent was swiftly crushed.
During this period, several Chilean bishops courageously advocated for human rights and represented a check on the dictatorship's worst instincts.
The church also helped Chile's poorest amid the government's push to liberalize the economy and worked closely with indigenous communities like the Mapuche.
Today, Chilean bishops don't have the same visibility, much less moral authority. Many Chileans believe the Catholic hierarchy is more aligned with business interests than the poor and downtrodden.
In Chile, divorce was essentially illegal until 2004, when the Andean nation ended some of the world's strictest marriage laws.
The church for decades was able to wield enormous influence on politicians to keep the status quo that went back to the 19th century. People wanting to get legally separated had to get an annulment, an arduous process that required the separating parties to show that somehow the legal requirements of the marriage had not been met.
The church argued that restricting divorce kept families together, but that often backfired: Many young people put off marriage for years or indefinitely, while married people who had separated would frequently have children out of wedlock with new partners, since they could not divorce and remarry. As a result, many Chileans turned against the faith.
Chile has some of the world's most restrictive reproductive laws, even after a reform passed last year. Abortion is legal only in three circumstances: when a woman's life is endangered, when a pregnancy results from rape and when a fetus is not viable.
For many Chileans, particularly the younger generations, Catholic leaders' opposition to abortion rights is another example of how church teachings don't jibe with their views.
The tight restrictions also underscore deep inequalities: Chilean women with the means have abortions done illegally at private clinics or travel abroad, while poor women either must keep the baby or use riskier methods.