Chilean government contemplating investigation into clerical abuse

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ROME – After a prominent Jesuit priest was accused of sexually abusing a girl, Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced he is contemplating opening a nationwide investigation into the Catholic Church.

Father Felipe Berrios, who spent the last seven years living in the La Chimba camp for migrants in the north of the country, was accused by a woman who said he abused her starting in 1998 when she was 12 until 2003 when she was 17. It happened while she was in a school in eastern Chile.

However, the abuse is not alleged to have taken place in the school but in her home. Following a tragedy in the family of the complainant, Berríos reportedly became the spiritual guide of her and her family.

According to a statement from the Jesuits, the complaint was received on April 29 and Berríos was quickly removed from public ministry. The priest indicated that he placed himself “at the disposal of the Society to clarify the facts as quickly as possible.”

In a report released in May 2021, Chile’s Jesuits acknowledged that 64 people were victims of sexual abuse – 34 of them during their childhood or adolescence – by 11 of its clerics who were investigated by the Catholic order between 2005 and 2020.

The Fundación para la Confianza – an organization that seeks to combat sexual abuse  – announced that they have “comprehensively accompanied the complainant, so that on April 29, we filed a canonical complaint with the Archdiocese of Santiago.” 

The archdiocese is led by Cardinal Celestino Aos, who was picked by Pope Francis to replace Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, who had several allegations of mishandling abuse allegations lodged against him when his resignation was accepted in 2019. Ezzati’s predecessor, Javier Errazuriz, was also accused by abuse victims of mishandling cases, including that of the country’s most infamous pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima, who died in 2021, two years after being removed from the priesthood.

In their statement, the Jesuits emphasized that “we expect a quick and transparent process, but (one that is) especially careful with the victim.”

Berríos is the founder of Techo, an NGO that has built 131,000 homes for people in need in the past 25 years.

The allegations against Berríos were made public five weeks after news broke of a failed attempt from Boric’s government to make him an adviser in a program managing camps for migrants and homeless people. The invitation had come from the Minister of Housing and Urbanism, Carlos Montes. A congratulatory note from the Jesuits, meant to be private, was leaked to the media, and the news enraged the president’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality, Antonia Orellana Guarello. 

Orellana, a journalist, was among the protesters who interrupted a 2013 Mass in Santiago’s Cathedral during a pro-abortion rally, pulling down a confessional and painting pro-abortion slogans on the building. The church had to remain closed for several days due to “blasphemy.”

Boric told reporters that he is open to the possibility of “an alternative that welcomes the victims, so that they do not feel unprotected,” including the creation of a commission for truth, justice, and reparation for victims of clerical sexual abuse.

Regarding the commission, he affirmed that “I have talked with some groups of victims of abuse by people linked to the ecclesiastical world who have raised this alternative.”

“It seems to me that it is something that we have to work on together,” referring to working with survivors’ advocates. “It makes sense to me. I do not want to announce something that now, as a reaction to [Berrios], the idea is still green, but it makes sense to me.”

Few local churches have been as impacted by the clerical sexual abuse crisis as Chile’s. Key clerics, both left and right, have been accused and found guilty of abusing minors.

RELATED: On Chile abuse crisis, who led Pope Francis to make ‘serious errors’? 

Karadima was the mentor of four Chilean bishops, including Juan Barros, who was appointed by Pope Francis to the southern diocese of Osorno. After stubbornly refusing to remove Barros for a time, the pontiff eventually removed him after sending two key Vatican officials to investigate the allegations. 

Another prominent priest, Jesuit Father Renato Poblete abused at least 22 women, four of them minors at the time of the abuse, during a span of nearly 25 years. 

When the case against Poblete became known, Berríos himself spoke of how tormenting it was to learn of the priest’s double life. “The shock of discovering this other person is something that hurts us, it creates a disillusionment, a distrust that we hope to overcome (…). As a congregation we have a responsibility to make it right,” he said in August 2019, in an interview with Radio La Clave.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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