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Chile: a wake-up call for the global Church

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Chile is the new Ireland: a once proud Catholic nation dramatically turning its back on the Church. A survey by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile has found that only 45 per cent of the 19 million population identified as Catholic in 2019, compared to 70 per cent in 2006.

This mass disaffiliation isn’t hard to explain. The country has witnessed one of the worst clerical abuse scandals of the 21st century. In May 2018, all of Chile’s active bishops offered their resignations to Pope Francis after a three-day crisis meeting at the Vatican. Police are investigating alleged cover-ups by two former archbishops of Santiago – Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati and Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa (both deny the allegations) – as well as more than 150 other cases within the Church. Not surprisingly, only 26 per cent of Chilean Catholics express confidence in the Church and only nine per cent in their priests and bishops, according to researchers.

These findings should serve as an alarm call for the entire Church. They show just how quickly that trust built up over centuries can be squandered. Dominicans and Franciscans brought the Catholic faith to Chile in the 16th century. For almost 500 years, Catholicism has helped to shape Chilean culture. Through its six Catholic universities and its private schools, the Church has formed the nation’s elite for generations. Yet in just 15 years the number of Chileans identifying as Catholics has fallen by 25 per cent.

It is true that Pope Francis inflamed the crisis when he accused abuse survivors of “slander” during his visit to the country in 2018. But a few months later he admitted that he had made a “grave error” and invited the victims to Rome so that he could ask their forgiveness. He has now begun to rebuild Chile’s shattered hierarchy. In October, he named a new apostolic nuncio to Chile, the Spanish Archbishop Alberto Ortega Martín, who will advise him on future episcopal appointments. The new nuncio has struck a welcome note of hope, describing the crisis as a “call to conversion” that may ultimately renew the Church.

Shortly after Christmas Francis also confirmed Bishop Celestino Aós Braco as Archbishop of Santiago and Bishop Luis Fernando Ramos Peréz as Archbishop of Puerto Montt. These incoming leaders face the profound challenge of restoring confidence in the Church. They will attempt to do so within an increasingly hostile climate. In November a church was looted during mass protests against Chile’s government. Hooded protesters carried pews and statues out of La Asunción church in Santiago and threw them onto a burning barricade. A mob set fire to another church last week.

This year Pope Francis will continue his search for new bishops as eight Chilean dioceses are still being run by apostolic administrators. He has found it hard to find leaders untainted by the crisis. That is why he has turned to relative outsiders such as Bishop Aós Braco, a formidable Capuchin friar from Spain.

Understandably, most Catholics are wearied by the abuse crisis and would rather not think about it. But unfortunately that is no longer an option. We must, in fact, focus relentlessly on ending it because it is arguably the greatest threat to the Church’s mission. We are probably only at the beginning of a battle that is likely to last a generation or more.

Last year the Church made some welcome progress in tackling this scourge. In February, the Vatican hosted a four-day summit on the crisis. In May, Pope Francis released Vos estis lux mundi, a motu proprio establishing new norms to combat abuse and hold bishops accountable. And in December, he abolished the pontifical secret in sexual abuse cases. But there is much more to be done if we are to avoid another catastrophe on the scale of Chile.

It is vital that the Church begins to act promptly and firmly wherever scandal appears. The crisis in Chile grew because for too long churchmen denied there was a problem. The  bishops thought they were protecting the Church’s good name, but in reality they were gravely damaging it.

Catholics in Europe and North America are familiar with this wearisome pattern. But we must not be complacent. It is not enough just to say that we now have stringent safeguards in place in our own countries. The abuse crisis is a worldwide problem and it will not be resolved without concerted and consistent global action.