Latin America confronts sexual abuse by Catholic priests
In Latin America, the response to allegations of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests has been muted relative to the recent firestorm in Europe. But some warn that if the matter isn't tackled head on, doubts about the Vatican could spread.
(Page 2 of 2)
Some leaders have had a muted response. "Latin America is looking at it from a distance, with a 'proceed with caution' attitude," says Manuel Vasquez, a religious studies expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "I don't think we've seen the full extent of the crisis in Latin America."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Many want tough questions posed to the Vatican by their leaders. "They are minimizing the situation, not taking into account the victims but defending the institution," says Alvaro Ramis, a theologian in Chile, where the Catholic Church is investigating recent claims of abuse. "If they do not accept the criticism, they will lose their legitimacy."
Latin America's most notorious case to date is that of the late Marcial Maciel, a Mexican priest who founded the conservative Legionaries of Christ in 1941. He has been accused of molesting minor seminarians. In 2006, the pope ordered the aging Father Maciel to retreat to a life of "prayer and penance." But only this year did the Legionaries of Christ acknowledge wrongdoing, issuing an apology for the "reprehensible" actions of Maciel. "The mistake the Legion made was not denouncing him in 2006," says Jason Berry, who has investigated the church's silence around Maciel and co-wrote the book "Vows of Silence."
In Chile, the Archbishop of Santiago said recently that the Catholic Church is investigating a handful of cases. The most recent involves a Spanish priest arrested for possessing child pornography. In 2003, another priest was sentenced to 12 years in prison for abusing and raping a minor. In Brazil, three priests were accused recently of sexually abusing altar boys and have been suspended.
The potential impact of the scandals is unclear, says Cecilia Mariz, a religion expert at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. The church in Latin America tends to be more conservative than in the United States or Europe, especially after liberation theology, which surged in the 1960s, was associated with communism and stifled by the Vatican. Once holding a virtual monopoly on faith in Latin America, Catholic parishes now compete with fundamentalist Pentecostals. The demographics of churches are changing, too, with less-devout Catholics leaving religion altogether.
In Brazil, Catholic reaction to the scandals so far has depended on the wing of the church from which a parishioner hails. Ms. Mariz says many Charismatics, for example, defend the church hierarchy. More-liberal Catholics are denouncing the Vatican. "Some people have resentment [of their leaders' positions], but it is not widespread among the faithful," she says.
Other leaders have begun to speak out. Cardinal Norberto Rivera in Mexico, who has long faced criticism for supporting Maciel, began Easter mass by condemning "dishonest and criminal" priests who abused "innocent children" and brought shame to other priests.