In the wake of Chile’s Catholic abuse crisis, victims struggle to find justice

A clergy sex abuse scandal involving Chile’s most notorious pedophile, the priest Fernando Karadima, shook the South American country in 2010 in a way never seen in Latin America

Y. Mara Teresa Hernndez
Wednesday 20 September 2023 05:06 BST

After she learned what happened, Helmut Kramer’s mother cut the priest out of photographs from her son’s baptism.

“She kept the photos after that,” said Kramer, who was sexually abused at age 12 in a Jesuit school in Antofagasta, a city in northern Chile.

“My mom is still Catholic, but she never attended Mass again. She says that she will never set foot in a church, and she does not trust the pope or any priest,” the 53-year-old Chilean said.

His mother’s feelings echo Chileans who have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church since 2010, when victims of another priest, Fernando Karadima, raised awareness about clergy sex abuse in the country.

According to polling firm Latinobarómetro, the decline in confidence in the Chilean Catholic Church is one of the largest in Latin America. It fell from 77% in 1996 to 31% in 2020. Currently half of Chile’s 18 million population identify as Catholic and the number of religiously unaffiliated rose from 18% in 2010 to 35% in 2020.

“This wasn’t a crisis, this was a cultural break from the Catholic Church,” said Chilean historian Marcial Sánchez. “Chilean society felt cheated by the church.”

Not long after the pope’s visit, Kramer joined other victims to launch “Red de Sobrevivientes Chile” (Chile’s Survivors Network), which widened its scope to support victims abused in foster homes, scout groups and sports clubs.

“We created the first map of abusers in an ecclesiastical context and introduced a political discourse: The problem of abuse is a human rights issue and must be treated accordingly,” Kramer said.

Human rights violations are a sensitive topic for Chileans who still mourn the losses of loved ones during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Kramer himself grew up during those times.

“We were in a context in which everything was quiet. You couldn’t speak about anything,” Kramer said.

And so, for 35 years, he kept silent.


The first time he spoke about his case, Jaime Concha was a 55-year-old doctor watching the news after work. What he saw on TV shocked him: a report about victims claiming clergy sex abuse at the Marist Brothers’ school where he studied from age 10.

It took him a few minutes to turn to his wife and say: “That happened to me as well.”

Four decades before that, when he was abused by several Marist Brothers and priests from his school, he wasn’t even sure that the abuse had taken place at all.

“The first time it happened, I thought it had been something I had made up,” Concha said. “The Marist Brothers were representatives of God.”

It took him years to process that what happened to him was abuse. Endless nights of guilt, self-loathing and mistrust.

“I had every reason to throw myself off the balcony,” he said. “Then why am I still alive? Because despite everything, there is a God who loves me.”


During the four years that he was abused by the priest who was supposed to mentor him, a question circled Javier Molina’s mind: If God was supposed to protect me, why did he allow this to happen?

He met his abuser in Santiago when Molina expressed his wish to become a priest. “He said that he was going to be my spiritual guide,” Molina said.

One Sunday, the priest spoke to Molina’s mother and offered to take her son to the beach. Pressured by fear of losing her job as his secretary, she agreed. Molina was 14. The priest, 48.

“I don’t know how long I cried, but I remember that I fell asleep, and I woke up when he banged on the bathroom door,” Molina said.

On the way back from the beach, Molina said, the priest threatened him. If you ever speak about this, the priest told him, I’ll tell everyone that you are gay, and I’ll make sure your mother never finds another job.


Many Chilean victims who became activists to advocate for children’s rights share a common thought: what underlies clergy sex abuse is not the Catholic Church, but the asymmetrical use of power.

“The Pope himself said that this is a matter of abuse of power in abusive cultures, of cover-ups that ensure impunity,” said one of Karadima’s victims, José Andrés Murillo, who met with Francis in 2018.

He, too, wished to become a priest once. When he met Karadima at age 15, the priest was expected to become a saint.

Murillo is now the director of Fundación para la Confianza (the Trust Foundation), which offers free psychological, judicial and emotional support for abuse survivors. He said that new victims reach out to him every day.

“Traumatic experiences open up a space toward self-destruction, toward the destruction of others or to find a way to fight,” he said. “I don’t want other people to experience what I experienced.”


When Helmut Kramer decided to speak up, the priest who abused him was more than 90 years old. A friend told him: “If you don’t talk now, he’s going to die, and no one will know what he did.”

Soon after talking to a local journalist, Kramer received a message that would change his life. “I am a survivor too and I just want to tell you that you’re not alone.” The sender was Eneas Espinoza, who went on to co-found Red de Sobrevivientes with Kramer.

“The Catholic Church is not our enemy,” Espinoza said. “Abusers are not our enemies; they are people who committed crimes and there is an institution that guarantees impunity.”

Activists like them pushed for removing the statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes against children, which ended up happening in 2019. Now they hope that President Gabriel Boric keeps his promise to create a Truth, Justice and Reparation Commission.

Every step taken by a sex abuse victim is an attempt to heal. “You carry this survival in your body because the site of the crime is yourself,” Espinoza said.

As part of this healing path, Kramer tries to laugh. With a smile across his face, he recalls the day he became an apostate.

On a 2019 afternoon, he headed to the archdiocese and handed in his baptism certificate. When the employee asked why he wanted to renounce Catholicism, he said: “Do you see the name of that priest? He raped me.”

When he got out, he started shouting: “I am an apostate!” Kramer joyfully recalls. Celebrations followed. “I bought myself lunch. I took a selfie, and everyone congratulated me,” he said.

“It was a feast.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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