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.

Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons/Newscom
Catholics pray at the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María in Mexico City, the largest and oldest (begun in 1573) cathedral in the Americas.

Tomasa Andrade, a nurse in Mexico City, has been a Roman Catholic all her life. Praying in an empty church before a weekday mass begins, she says the controversy sweeping the Vatican over the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests has not tested her faith. "I believe in God, not in priests," she says. "They are human and can commit the worst crimes there are."

But, she adds, her faith – and her faith in the institution – are two different things. "There should be justice," she says, adding that so far the leaders in Latin America are not taking a strong enough stance against the sex-abuse cases that have surfaced in the region and the ones across Europe now rocking the Vatican.

Latin America is home to almost half of the world's Roman Catholics; about 70 percent of the population identifies itself as Catholic. But many say the church – tested already by the growth of Pentecostalism – could face a backlash if it does not acknowledge and punish wrongdoing.

Pope Benedict the XVI has already come under strong criticism in Europe and the US for his handling of priests who sexually abused children when he was in charge of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In a few cases, his office failed to defrock priests accused of abusing children for years.

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"The future of the global church really hinges on Latin America," says Andrew Chesnut, an expert on religion in Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "The Charismatic Renewal has revitalized the church in many Latin American countries, most notably Brazil, but sex- abuse scandals, which are only a matter of time, could easily result in further defections from the church."

Some regional leaders have rushed to the support of the Vatican, which has dismissed the criticism as a "hate campaign." The Latin American Episcopal Conference wrote a letter of solidarity to the pope. The Archbishop of Santiago condemned the "unjust criticism received by the pope by some of the international press." And in a letter dated March 30, the bishops of Paraguay expressed their support for the pope against the "attacks" he has received. Many parishioners also say the pope has been treated unfairly

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."

Tough questions

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.

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