By Ines San Martin
ROME – In a decision being hailed as historic, three Chilean survivors of the country’s most infamous pedophile priest reportedly have won a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Santiago. The court found two Catholic cardinals guilty of covering up for Fernando Karadima.
The court’s decision hasn’t yet been made official, but it was published on Sunday by local newspaper La Tercera, and the three survivors who were suing the archdiocese quickly released a statement celebrating the decision.
Assuming the report is correct, the Church either will have to pay the survivors US$600,000 or appeal the decision, which would bring the case to Chile’s Supreme Court. The survivors had previously lost before a lower court, but appealed the ruling citing new evidence discovered by a prosecutor during a raid on the archives of the Archdiocese of Santiago.
Karadima had been found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexually abusing children and adolescents, and was sentenced to a life of penitence and prayer. Earlier this month, Pope Francis decided to remove him from the clerical state.
Chilean courts never tried the former priest due to the statute of limitations, though a prosecutor at the time made it known that she found the accusations to be credible.
Three of Karadima’s survivors, James Hamilton, Juan Carlos Cruz and José Andrés Murillo, afterwards decided to sue the Archdiocese of Santiago for covering up for their abuser, specifically naming Cardinals Francisco Javier Errázuriz and Ricardo Ezzati.
The three were welcomed by Francis in the Vatican earlier this year, weeks before he summoned the entire Chilean bishops’ conference to Rome. At the end of a three-day meeting, every bishop presented his resignation, and the pontiff has accepted seven of them.
Different accounts, including from the pope himself, have signaled that Ezzati’s resignation will be accepted as soon as Francis finds a replacement.
The evidence that turned the case around in favor of the victims was an email written in 2009 by Errázuriz to the former papal representative in Chile, Archbishop Giuseppe Pinto.
In it, the cardinal, who sits on the council of nine cardinals who advise the pope on Church governance (although he was absent in the last meeting, and is expected not to attend another meeting) – acknowledged that he didn’t ask his diocesan promotor of justice to interrogate Karadima.
“The truth is this: It was necessary to ask for the intervention of the promotor of justice, according to the episcopal conference,” said the email, which was leaked to local media.
“The presentation of the allegations to the promotor of justice normally calms the aggression of the accusers,” the email says. “With respect to F. Karadima I didn’t ask the promotor to interrogate him; I only asked Monsignor Andrés Arteaga for his opinion. He considered everything absolutely implausible. Since this was about facts that had prescribed [past the statute of limitations], I closed the investigation. That’s how I chose to protect them, conscious that the way I acted, if the accusers at some point brought the case to the media, it would turn against me.”
Karadima was an influential priest in the Church in Santiago, with some 40 priests finding their vocation in the parish he ran in an upscale neighborhood, and four men from his “iron circle” became bishops. Francis accepted the resignation of one of them, Bishop Juan Barros, earlier this year.
It was his 2015 decision to transfer Barros that led to local uproar that eventually saw all the bishops resigning and the pontiff admitting he’d made “serious errors” of judgement when it came to the situation of the Church in Chile.
Eight bishops, including Ezzati, have been subpoenaed by the prosecutor’s office on charges of cover-up or of sexual abuse.
“I’m very excited about what happened today,” Cruz said. “First, my mind goes to all survivors who’ve been suffering so much at the hands of Cardinals Errázuriz and Ezzati and other bishops because of their horrible cover-up and constant lies. So my heart goes out to all survivors because these criminals have been exposed today.”
The survivor also told Crux that he’s happy because this is the first time that the Church in Chile has been penalized for cover-up and for negligence and “for having done everything wrong, basically, for being criminals.”
According to Cruz, the sentence – that should be announced in upcoming days “will help Pope Francis do what he’s doing and install new, fresh blood to re-build the Church that these men like cardinals Errázuriz and Ezzati and other bishops have done such a good job in destroying.”
“And I also think that what happened in Chile today will have a snowball effect to other countries, so I’m happy for many, many things – mostly for survivors.”
In a short statement, the archdiocese said they’re going to wait to see the actual decision from the court, and only then determine what their next steps will be.
“Although we don’t know the resolution, in the last days a new antecedent was added to the cause, of which we didn’t have knowledge. We must analyze this situation, together with the ruling, to determine what to do next,” the archdiocese said.
The three survivors released a joint statement in which they expressed their joy over the court’s decision.
“It’s been a very long road, full of difficulties and with a high personal and family cost,” they wrote. “But it’s been worth it.”
“This should lead to the end of impunity when it comes to clerical sexual abuse,” Cruz, Hamilton and Murillo added.
The Chilean justice system and the Vatican, the three survivors wrote, “are in the same line, to end the culture of abuse and cover-up of which the cardinals [Errázuriz and Ezzati] are faithful representatives.”