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Priest of Chile’s elite accused of sexual abuse

A priest whose parish has for decades catered to Chile’s conservative political and economic elite was accused this week by four of his former followers of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers.

The men, now in their 40s, — three currently living in Chile and one in the United States — say father Fernando Karadima, 79, abused them while they were members of the Catholic Action movement the priest had created within his parish. They claim Karadima, whom they regarded as a “saint,” had total psychological control over them and manipulated them through confession.

The men claim the abuses went on for years, and may be continuing to this day with young members of Karadima’s closest circle of followers.

The case leaked to the media on Wednesday and the attorney representing the victims filed a lawsuit against the priest that same day. Karadima has not been seen in public ever since, but his lawyer has denied all the charges.

Days earlier, Chile’s Catholic church publicly asked for forgiveness for priests involved in sexual abuse, and said there were 20 such cases, most still under investigation either in courts or by church superiors.

The four men say they began reporting the abuses several years ago, at different times and to different church officials, but have so far received no response. When the accusations were made public this week, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz admitted the church has been investigating them for several months.

But unlike other cases of sexual abuse inflicted by priests, this time the victims received little sympathy from the church, parishioners and conservative politicians.

Karadima is not just any priest. A disciple and self-proclaimed spiritual heir of Jesuit priest Alberto Hurtado, canonized in 2005, the charismatic priest attracted young followers to his Catholic Action movement promising them sainthood, and demanding total obedience and constant confession, especially after his abuses, say the victims.

The Sagrado Corazon parish headed by Karadima for decades is located in the heart of Santiago’s traditional, conservative and well-to-do district of Providencia. There, he became the spiritual guide of dozens of priests and five bishops and exerted considerable influence over upper-class Catholics.

Since the accusations were made public, parishioners, politicians and some bishops quickly expressed support for a man, they say, incapable of doing wrong. The conservative media has echoed the claims of Karadima's lawyer that the victims are troubled and conflictive people and that all of this is a montage orchestrated by an unidentified person or group.

The church hierarchy is now grappling with how to address this particular case, the first involving a priest as influential and reputable as Karadima, at a time when the Vatican and the Catholic church all over the world are being pressed to respond to present and past abuses and their concealment.

On Friday, Cardinal Errazuriz and the president of the Bishops Conference met with President Sebastian Pinera. Karadima was on the top of the agenda. After the meeting, Cardinal Errazuriz stated he would distribute a letter on the subject to parish priests throughout the country this weekend, to be read at mass this Sunday.