IN MOST of the world, Pope Francis is revered as a liberal reformer. Just across the Andes from his native Argentina, however, his image has taken a blow in the wake of a sexual-abuse scandal that could rival the gravity of those revealed in the United States and Ireland in the 2000s. On July 12th Óscar Muñoz, the former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Santiago, Chile’s capital, was arrested on charges of abusing seven children since 2002. Father Muñoz, who had confessed his guilt to church officials in one case in January, was in charge of maintaining archives of clerical-abuse investigations and took testimony from victims in other cases. He was not an isolated bad apple: Chile’s national prosecutor’s office announced this week that it is investigating 36 accusations of sexual abuse by clergy and church employees. It also summoned the country’s highest-ranking Catholic official, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, to testify as a defendant in the alleged cover-up of sex crimes. In five cases, church leaders are suspected of having concealed crimes or obstructed justice.
Francis’s initial response to the allegations that had arisen in Chile bore unwelcome similarity to the handling of such cases under his predecessors. In 2015 he gave a bishopric to Juan Barros, a priest who had been accused of concealing the crimes of Fernando Karadima—a well-connected priest whom the church found guilty of paedophilia in 2011, seven years after receiving its first complaint against him. Bishop Barros has denied any wrongdoing. On a visit to Chile in January, Francis caused outrage by dismissing the claims against Bishop Barros as “calumnies”.
The pope soon recognised his error. After commissioning a 2,300-page report into Bishop Barros, he summoned all 34 of Chile’s acting and retired bishops to Rome to address charges of “grave negligence” in handling investigations and even destroying evidence. All of them tendered their resignations, and Francis has accepted five, including Bishop Barros’s. In a public mea culpa, Francis called on Chileans to create spaces in which “a critical and questioning attitude is not confused with betrayal.”
The church in Chile is also starting to change. For decades, it treated sexual abuse by priests as a sin rather than a crime, conducting its own investigations without telling government authorities. In some cases, it simply reshuffled clergy implicated in sex crimes to different parishes. It has now set up a new protocol, urging victims to take their stories to prosecutors.
Nonetheless, the scandal threatens to accelerate the decline of Catholicism in Chile. According to Latinobarómetro, a pollster, the share of Chileans expressing confidence in the church has collapsed from 80% in 1996 to 34% in 2017, a decline four times as large as the Latin American average during that period. And for the first time, last year Chile ranked first in the region in the proportion of respondents telling Latinobarómetro that they do not profess any faith at all.