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Wednesday April 13th, 2011
Iván Smirnow | Universidad de Chile

The Karadima case, in which former priest, Fernando Karadima was found guilty of sexually abusing minors, has aggravated the already high tension between the Chilean Catholic Church, the justice system, and civil society. Following the Vatican’s condemnation of Karadima, a television appearance by one of the Karadima’s accusers has caused a media avalanche, generating a political dialogue that exposes fissures within ecclesiastical society, focusing attention on the flaws of the Chilean legislative framework, and denouncing an institutional order that has not only failed to prevent these abuses, but has also promoted its systematization through secrecy and clandestine collaborations.

Some of the plaintiffs had appeared previously on a 2010 television special about the case. Reactions to the program were diverse—some particularly hostile, reviling and accusing the protagonists of engaging in defamatory acts. The audience was divided, with congregational devotees and a faithful nucleus within the Church shielding the former priest and reliably denying accusations of “irregularities.” After a brief inquiry, the court closed the case, ruling that the abuses, if they had really been committed, would be dismissed because the statute of limitation had expired.

Today the scenario is different. The Vatican’s judgment, handed down in February 2011 (during the first days in office of the new archbishop of Santiago), was wounding. Even though the sentence was rather lenient, it dispelled any possible doubt as to the veracity of the accusations. The case has been reopened by the Chilean justice system and recently new details have come to light.
In his televised declarations, Dr. James Hamilton called former archbishop of Santiago, Monsignor Errázuriz, a “criminal” for his participation in the concealment of Karadima’s crimes and for acting as part of a circle of protection composed of religious and civilian members (whom Hamilton identified with first and/or last name). Included on the list of religious members was the Matte clan, one of Chile’s richest families, whose members, among other preoccupying duties, had intended to discredit Hamilton at his workplace. This circle of protection acted with blindness and indolence for decades, facilitating the impunity of the accused. The case has even been referred to as the Karadima-Errázuriz case, alluding to an institutional responsibility in this dispute and others like it.  This view contrasts with attempts, some more successful than others, to simplify the conflict (and in the process to dissociate the church of any responsibility) by invoking the false analogy of the rotten apple.

Greatly affected by Hamilton’s declarations, the ecclesiastical community did not hesitate in their responses. The aforementioned ex-archbishop, Monsignor Errázuriz, maintained his innocence and shielded himself in the logic of prudence, sticking to his version of the facts, which can paraphrased in the following way: Although the 2004 ecclesiastical investigation indicated, both from the facts presented and the testimonies collected (the investigator in charge even confirmed that he gave his explicit personal opinion), that the accusations were grounded in fact, Errázuriz rejected the evidence due to the fact that someone he trusted—who remains unidentified—told him that it was all a lie. He has since expressed regret for this “prudent” error.

This explanation, while accepted by some sectors of the Church, has been refuted on various fronts. Two responses stood out: in the first, Percival Cowley, former chaplain of La Moneda, said that he was branded a liar after approaching Errázuriz on his own initiative and without support from his congregation to express his worries that those who were (at the time “supposedly”) affected by Karadima’s abuses had not received attention from the archbishop. The other response that caused a stir was a statement sent to various press agencies by another plaintiff, who had not participated in the debate in the media. In his account, he not only reaffirmed statements made by Hamilton regarding the cover-up by Errázuriz and the Church, but he also questioned the Vatican’s use of prescription when ruling on crimes of this type. This questioning of current legal framework is one of other such observations that call attention to the lack of Congressional involvement in this debate.

The voices multiply. Some assert that is it time to make changes, recognizing this moment as a critical one for the Chilean Catholic Church, while others appeal to a mediocre relativism and logics that are frankly unfortunate (as in Cardinal Medina’s statement that “a 17 year-old knows what he’s doing”). Likewise, some media sources continue to emphasize (underhandedly) Karadima’s advanced age (80), very much in line with the strategy of his defense attorneys. Others cite the opinions of foreign experts who question the fairness of the Vatican’s ruling against Karadima, citing the use of anonymous witnesses. The latter argument may not seem particularly offensive, but it calls attention to the fact that the news source in question has never criticized similar uses of anonymous witnesses like those employed in the trials of defendants indicted under the “antiterrorist law.”

In a country that dangerously slides into oblivion, such media events serve to reactivate memories. Although paradigmatic given its impact on society, the Karadima case is far from exceptional. The former priest’s abuses are part of a long list of offenses perpetrated by different actors that have resulted in different outcomes during the past decade. The current debate also provides a context for the proliferation of criminal complaints about sexual abuses and economic malfeasance that implicate different religious congregations. The eyes of Chile are on the Church, especially on that which has been swept under the rug and camouflaged with a hypertrophied moralism for decades.

Iván Smirnow is a Chilean psychologist based in Santiago. He has worked in education and research and is currently working on his thesis (titled Cuerpos-hechos-por/para-el-trabajo: cuerpo, memoria y trabajo precario) towards a Masters degree in Gender and Culture Studies at the University of Chile.
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