Catholic Church wavers on child sex scandals in pope's homeland

LIMA, Peru — Pope Francis’ promise of
a more humble, tolerant Catholic
Church may have earned rave reviews
around the world, but in Latin
America, a string of child sex scandals
has left some wondering what's really
changed in the Vatican.
Along with landmark gestures such as
dressing simply, publicly kissing
followers’ feet and refusing to
condemn gays, Francis has also vowed
to punish pedophile priests.
Yet seven months into his papacy, the
church’s questionable handling of child
molestation cases in Argentina, Chile,
the Dominican Republic and Peru is
calling that commitment into doubt.
Campaigners say it may be no
coincidence that the scandals have
occurred in Latin America, the world’s
most Catholic region, given the
influence wielded here by an often
conservative clergy.
In the Dominican Republic, the
Vatican’s envoy, Josef Wesolowski, was
secretly fired in August for allegedly
paying underage boys for sex.
In Peru, an auxiliary bishop, Gabino
Miranda, has been on the run for more
than a month since child sex
allegations surfaced. He is alleged to
have selected his victims during
confession.
Erika Santelices / AFP - Getty Images,
file
Monsignor Josef Wesolowski, the for
papal nuncio in the Dominican Rep
was quietly fired over allegations of
pedophilia.
He was also secretly sacked by the
church. The news only broke by
accident, during a media interview with
a progressive ex-bishop who
mentioned the issue in passing.
In a letter to the Vatican, Miranda
denied the allegations but
acknowledged being “imprudent.”
Lima’s ultraconservative archbishop,
Juan Luis Cipriani, even scolded
journalists covering the scandal and
demanded “mercy” be shown to
Miranda.
Meanwhile, in Chile, the archbishop of
Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati, this month
declined to appear before a
congressional committee investigating
sexual abuse at Catholic children’s
homes, citing the separation of church
and state.
That was despite the fact that the
homes in question were part-funded
by Chile’s government agency for child
welfare.
And in Argentina, Father Julio Cesar
Grassi is now behind bars after an
appeals court in September confirmed
his 15-year sentence for sexual assaults
on two young boys.
His trial brought a mixed reaction from
the Argentine church. One bishop
publicly insisted Grassi was innocent.
And in response to his conviction, his
archdiocese issued a statement
highlighting how Grassi had been
acquitted on 15 of the 17 charges
against him.
For critics, the cases show the church
under Francis — who was archbishop
of Buenos Aires before becoming Latin
America's first pope — still has a long
way to go in how it handles pedophile
priests.
Jose Andres Murillo, founder of Chilean
group Para la Confianza (For Trust),
which helps victims, said: “This just
demonstrates how there needs to be
profound change within the structures
of the church.
“It remains full of cardinals and
bishops who were named by John Paul
II and were sympathetic to his political
fight [against communism] but who are
pretty reticent when it comes to the
rights of children, women or
minorities.”
Murillo was also outraged by
“scandalous and criminal” moves to
declare John Paul II a saint next year,
despite the late pope’s 1999 shelving
of a child abuse investigation into his
friend, the late Mexican priest Marcial
Maciel.
Maciel founded the Legionaries of
Christ, a powerful worldwide religious
order that now admits he carried out
widespread child abuse and has
expressed its “sorrow and grief” to his
victims.
“The problem is global but there are
reasons to think it is particularly bad
in Latin America,” said Barbara Blaine,
of the Chicago-based Survivors
Network of those Abused by Priests
(SNAP).
“The church plays such an important
role in most of Latin America. It can
influence people’s lives more than in
some other parts of the world.”
Two urgently needed measures, she
said, are full church transparency
when handling pedophilia cases and
for senior clergy found to have
covered up child sex abuse to be
disciplined.
Yet the church establishment’s
response, including since Francis
became pontiff, has largely been one
of silence.
The Peruvian Episcopal Conference,
which gathers together the country’s
Catholic bishops, issued a statement
offering its “prayers” for Miranda’s
victims and stressing the dedication of
the Catholic clergy and faithful to the
“poorest and most needy.”
But neither the Vatican nor Catholic
authorities in Latin America has made
any moves to inform the public when a
cleric is being investigated.
With 425 million believers, some 39
percent of the global total, Latin
America remains easily the world’s
most Catholic region, according to the
Pew Research Center.
Nevertheless, the church has been
hemorrhaging followers here, many to
evangelical denominations.
Now just 72 percent of residents in
Latin America and the Caribbean
describe themselves as Catholic,
compared with 90 percent a century
ago.
Francis’ new tone may be an attempt to
reverse that trend by making
Catholicism more accessible and
reaching out to those who felt
excluded by its moral admonitions on a
range of issues, from reproductive
rights to homosexuality.
In a recent interview, he called on
Catholics not to be so "obsessed" with
imposing doctrines.
Yet the pontiff may be thwarted by
resistance from conservative priests.
Although Latin America spawned the
“liberation theology” movement of
leftist priests who dedicated themselves
to helping the poor — and which John
Paul II decried as Marxist — it’s also
home to some of the most reactionary
clergy in the world.
Cipriani, the archbishop of Lima, is the
most senior cleric in Opus Dei, the
movement that follows a literal — its
critics say harsh — interpretation of
the Bible.
He is known for his controversial
views. He believes Peru’s former
dictator Alberto Fujimori, serving a 25-
year prison sentence for embezzlement
and directing death squads, should be
released. And he opposed a pension of
less than $100 a month for the
penniless elderly.
Jorge Apolaya, a gay activist in Peru,
said despite the pope’s recent
comments that he could not “judge”
homosexuals, there remained great
“distrust and suspicion” among the
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
(LGBT) community.
“You definitely have mixed feelings
hearing the pope talk like that,”
Apolaya, of the Peruvian LGBT
Network, said. “It is a light at the end
of the tunnel, but it is still a long way
away.”
“The church establishment here in
Peru is still very conservative and uses
its influence to block LGBT rights and
equality. I don’t see gay Catholics
returning to the church in significant
numbers just yet.”
And unless Francis is able to match
words with actions, the same may be
true for those who have abandoned
the church over its failure to tackle
pedophile priests.