Two special envoys sent by Pope Francis to investigate a child sex abuse scandal in Chile were meeting priests and Church workers at a university in the Chilean capital last month when aides rushed into the room with an alarming development: police and prosecutors were about to start raiding Church offices.
The envoys were 90 minutes into a seminar on how to investigate allegations of sex abuse committed by fellow clergy following revelations that hundreds of children might have been molested. For decades, the Roman Catholic Church in Chile quietly investigated such allegations without alerting police, but it now stands accused, even by Pope Francis himself, of a cover-up that allowed abusers to operate with impunity.
One of the clergymen listening to the envoys was Jaime Ortiz de Lazcano, the legal adviser to Santiago’s archbishop. The aides rushed to his side and told him, “‘Father, go to the (Church offices) because there’s going to be a raid’,” Ortiz later recounted.
Police and prosecutors were staging simultaneous raids on Church offices less than a mile away from the university and outside the capital, looking for evidence of sex crimes the Church had not reported to police.
The surprise sweeps, ordered by Emiliano Arias, a provincial prosecutor, marked the start of what experts who track sex crimes in the Roman Catholic Church say is one of the most aggressive investigations ever undertaken by a judicial authority anywhere in the world.
Since that cold June afternoon there have been five more raids on Church offices to seize documents, phones, tablets and computers, leaving the Vatican scrambling to respond to a rapidly unfolding scandal that is the worst image crisis of Francis’ papacy, now in its sixth year.
Leading the charge against the Church is Arias, 45, who is experienced in fighting organized crime and has a showman’s fondness for taking television news crews on the raids.
Arias told Reuters in an exclusive interview that documents seized by his team contained 30 cases of alleged abuse dating back to 2007 that the Church had not reported to the police. While Reuters was allowed to film his investigators poring through seized documents, he declined to give details from the files because he said they named victims of abuse.
He also alleged that some local Church officials had tried to destroy documents but that his team – made up of two prosecutors, three lawyers and a unit of specialist sex crime police – had salvaged them. He declined to say who had tried to destroy them or how they had tried to get rid of them.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm those assertions.
Víctor Villa Castro, head of communications for the Santiago archbishopric, said he could not comment on any cases under investigation by Arias.
“We would however say that we have no knowledge of the destruction of documents, nor the covering-up of crimes,” he said. “The victims are the first, and most important, in this and we will cooperate with the civil authorities in any way that can help to get to the truth of these matters.”
Arias says he wants to arrest both those who perpetrated the abuse and those who he says helped to cover it up. He arrested Oscar Munoz, a top aide to Santiago’s archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, after seizing church documents in which Munoz confessed to sex crimes. Munoz’s lawyer has acknowledged that some of the accusations in the documents are true but says he will challenge some others.
Arias last week named Ezzati, the most senior Roman Catholic in Chile, as a suspect, accusing him of covering up his aide’s alleged abuses. Ezzati has denied any wrongdoing and promised to cooperate. [L1N1UL01I]
Arias said he launched the raids after Church officials in Rancagua, the capital of O’Higgins region, told him he would have to make a formal petition to the Vatican to obtain information he was seeking because it was protected by ‘pontifical secret.’
A spokesman for the Rancagua archbishop’s office said they were told to do this by the Vatican and insisted they were cooperating fully with civil authorities. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke declined to comment.
The Roman Catholic Church says the ‘pontifical secret’ provision in canon law is intended to protect the privacy of all involved in sex abuse claims. Critics say bishops have historically used it as a shield to block inquiries from civil authorities.
“We are not talking about a fraud, or a theft, we are talking about crimes against children,” Arias said in an interview in his office in Rancagua, explaining his decision not to submit the request to the Vatican and instead get a judge to approve the raids.