The offices of the Roman Catholic diocese in Chillan, a small agricultural city in southern Chile, recently had some unusual and unexpected visitors: Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias and 10 armed police officers.
Arias, wearing a loose gray suit and a brown backpack over one shoulder, walked briskly past the receptionist and climbed the stairs to the third floor, entering a green walled room dominated by a large framed photo of a smiling Pope John Paul II, who visited Chile in 1987.
After exchanging a few words with nervous church staff and explaining his mission, Arias and police immediately began going over personnel records stored in file cabinets along one wall in the next office.
Currently, more than 190 people across Chile are being investigated for alleged sexual abuse and cover-ups linked to the Roman Catholic Church, including 113 priests and nine bishops, according to the Chilean National Prosecutor's Office.
Of 251 victims, at least 109 were minors as young as 5 years old when they were abused, dating back to the 1940s. The number of cases under investigation has risen from a year ago when 83 people were being investigated in the alleged abuse of 162 people between 2000 and 2017.
Arias and his team were searching for evidence in the cases of eight priests from the Chillan diocese, including now removed Bishop Carlos Pellegrin, suspected of participating in or covering up the abuse of a dozen youths since the 1970s. While Arias pored over files in this town 250 miles south of Santiago, the capital, three other teams made similar raids on diocesan offices in Valparaiso, Concepción and Osorno.
“Show me the bishops' office and the archives, both the current and historical archives” of the diocese, said the prosecutor to a surprised church staff member, as seen in a video of the raid to which The Times was provided access. “My intention is not to go through every drawer, but that you cooperate with the police.”
The raids carried out in September 2018 were part of an effort by the Chilean National Prosecutor’s office to bring alleged abusive priests to justice after decades of secrecy during which shocking cases of abuse appear to have been swept under the rug.
The investigation is being closely followed by Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera, who despite not having formal power over the Prosecutor’s office, has spoken out about children’s welfare since taking office in March. He also has promoted a bill to establish tougher measures against abusers of minors and discussed the scandal with Pope Francis during a visit to the Vatican in October.
"We're sick of what happened," said Alejandro Alvarez, a lawyer and a spokesman for Catholic Voices Chile, a laymen’s group advocating an aggressive and transparent probe of the sex abuse allegations . "We are sick of the disgusting context of abuses of clerics against minors ….the excessive power that was given to priests in Chile."
The scandal has taken a significant toll on the Church. When John Paul II visited Chile in 1987, polls showed 76% of the population identified as Catholic. Now, only 45% claim membership in the church, according to a survey by the private consultancy Latinobarometro.
Public approval of the Catholic Church as an institution has fallen to 20%, according to the private consultancy firm Cadem.
Given orders by Chile’s national prosecutor Jorge Abbott to vigorously prosecute the case, Arias and other investigators began conducting raids in June. Prosecutors also searched offices in Rancagua and Santiago, where they checked on the personal desk of Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the most powerful church leader in Chile.
The raids have netted 201 computer drives, as well as CDs and paper files. In Valparaiso, police descended down a narrow staircase into a basement with a room where they found files on sexual abuse cases covered by a red cloth with white borders. It was unclear whether the documents had been moved there recently or not.
“We are carrying out an investigation that not only Chile but a good part of the Western world is looking at, so we hope to have a genuine, transparent and open collaboration with the church,” Abbott said during his annual speech Oct. 24.
At Pinera’s October meeting with Pope Francis, the two men “talked about the tough situation that the church is going through in Chile and we shared the hope that the church can have a rebirth,” the president, an observant Roman Catholic, told reporters.
The abuse issue gained prominence in January after comments by Pope Francis during his visit to Chile sparked outrage by minimizing the scandal’s importance.
Asked by a local journalist, Pope Francis termed false the accusations that then-bishop of Osorno Juan Barros covered up the alleged sexual abuse of three children and four young adults by priest Fernando Karadima, who was sentenced in 2011 by the Vatican to a life of penance and prayer. Francis finally expelled him from the priesthood in September 2018.
The dismissive comments were too much for many church officials, including the influential Boston archbishop, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, who said Francis’ words had been “a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator.”
Within days, Francis had changed his mind, sending the archbishop of Malta, Charles J. Scicluna, to investigate the Chilean cases. In March, Scicluna delivered a scathing report blaming the church hierarchy in Chile for systematic cover-ups. The report led to 33 Chilean bishops offering their resignation en masse. Francis so far has accepted seven, including that of the controversial bishop Juan Barros and Pellegrin of Chillan.
Cardinal and Santiago archbishop Ezzati, meanwhile, is being investigated for allegedly covering up sexual abuse by former archdiocese chancellor Oscar Munoz — a priest who was supposed to be taking care of the sexual abuse investigation files, and who’s currently under nocturnal house arrest.
"The announcement of a new archbishop of Santiago is imminent, certainly before Christmas," the Pope's biographer, Austen Ivereigh, posted on Twitter on Nov. 30.
In an interview, Arias said that bishops who chose not to inform the prosecutor’s office of sexual crimes perpetrated by priests should be held accountable. Bishops at military bases are under an even greater compulsion to report such crimes because they belong to the military bishopric, are paid as state workers and, therefore, required by law to report illegal activities.
"The victims who, until now, have not been heard, are saying that something is finally happening," said Arias. “There’s a need for justice and catharsis.”