The paedophile priest scandal currently enveloping the Vatican has spread to one of the most Catholic areas of the world following a string of new abuse revelations throughout Latin America.
Reports of priests raping or abusing minors have now emerged in Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Mexico and Chile causing growing anger in a continent that is home to nearly half the world’s Catholics.
In Brazil an 83-year-old priest has been arrested after he was secretly filmed in bed with a 19-year-old altar boy. The footage was broadcast on national television networks prompting a police investigation which led to the arrest of Monsignor Luiz Marques Barbosa and two other priests in the north eastern state of Alagoas. They have since been accused of abusing boys as young as 12 and have been suspended by their diocesan bishop.
The Catholic Church in Chile confirmed this week that there have been 20 alleged or confirmed cases of child abuse by priests. At a press conference yesterday, Monsignor Alejandro Goic, the head of Chile’s bishops’ conference, apologised and vowed to crack down on any priests who had abused children.
"There is no place in the priesthood for those who abuse minors, and there is nothing that can justify this crime," he said.
Reporters in Uruguay have also discovered that a priest who had been charged with raping three children in Bolivia had returned to his homeland and was living openly with full knowledge of local church officials.
Juan Jose Santana has been on the run from Bolivian authorities since May 2008. An Interpol warrant has been issued for his arrest but reporters from the La Republica newspaper tracked him down to his home town. Asked if allegations that he had abused children were true, the newspaper reported that Santana said, "It's true. That's all I can say... You know something? I'm dead."
The Mexican church is already reeling from revelations surrounding the Legionnaires of Christ, a shadowy but powerful Catholic sect which was founded by the charismatic Maciel Degollado. Following his death in 2008 it emerged that the staunchly conservative theologian had a series of sexual affairs with men, women and boys in many different parts of the world.
This week the Mexican church has also been drawn into a potentially costly legal battle in the United States. An anonymous Mexican citizen has filed papers suing Catholic cardinals in Mexico City and Los Angeles, accusing them of purposely hiding the background of a Mexican priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of children.
Speaking at his weekly public audience in St Peter’s Square today, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about meeting abuse victims during his weekend trip to Malta, in what was a rare public statement on the paedophile scandal.
"I wanted to meet some people who were victims of abuse by members of the clergy,” he said. “I shared with them their suffering and with emotion I prayed with them, promising them action on the part of the Church."
So far the kind of widespread anti-church outrage seen in European countries currently experiencing abuse scandals has yet to materialise in Latin America. But the drip of allegations are potentially damaging to an institution that is already trying to counter the growing influence of evangelical missionaries.
Approximately 71 percent of South Americans consider themselves Catholic, down from 80 percent in 1995. The proportion of people who consider themselves evangelical or Protestant, meanwhile, rose from 3 percent to 13 percent in the same period.
Professor Manuel Vasquez, an expert in Latin American religion at the University of Florida, says the Catholic Church still has a “strong moral standing” in South America because of its history in confronting despotic regimes throughout the late twentieth century.
“That may insulate the Catholic Church from some of the dramatic anger that we’ve seen in Europe but it’s also a two-edged sword,” he explained. “The Church’s moral power comes through confronting governments on the issue of impunity. But if people believe the Church is now itself acting with impunity, it leaves them open to allegations of double standards.”
Church Scandals in Latin America
Juan Jose Santana, a priest, has been on the run from the Bolivian authorities since May 2008, charged with raping three children. He returned to Uruguay where he was living openly until he was tracked down by reporters.
The secrets of Maciel Degollado, the head of the powerful Legionnaires of Christ sect, came to light after his death in 2008. The staunchly conservative theologian had sexual affairs with men, women and boys in many different parts of the world.
The Catholic Church in Chile has confired 20 alleged or confirmed cases of child abuse by priests. The head of Chile's bishops' conference said that nothing could excuse such crimes and promised to crack down on them.