Sex abuse, political turmoil cast shadow on pope’s trip to Chile, Peru

A street vendor sold flags ahead of Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Chile in Uspallata, Mendoza, Argentina, on Saturday.
A street vendor sold flags ahead of Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Chile in Uspallata, Mendoza, Argentina, on Saturday.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ trip to Chile and Peru, originally aimed at highlighting the plight of indigenous peoples and the delicate Amazon ecosystem, is being partly overshadowed by the Catholic Church’s record in confronting priestly sex abuse in Chile and political turmoil in Peru.

Vandals attacked five churches with firebombs in the Chilean capital of Santiago on Friday and warned in a leaflet that ‘‘the next bombs will be in your cassock.’’ It was an unprecedented threat against the pope and a violent start to what were already expected to be the first-ever protests against Francis on a foreign trip.

There were no injuries or arrests in the church bombings, but the leaflet exhorted the cause of the Mapuche indigenous people.


The Vatican agreed to the Chile visit knowing that the local church had lost much of the moral authority it earned during the Pinochet dictatorship, when bishops spoke out against human rights abuses when other institutions were silenced.

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But now, the Catholic Church in Chile has been largely marginalized, criticized as out-of-touch with today’s secular youth and discredited by its botched handling of a notorious pedophile priest.

In Peru, Francis had hoped to highlight the need to protect the vast Amazon and its native peoples. But he now has to contend with a president who only narrowly escaped impeachment a few weeks ago, sparked massive protests by issuing a politically charged pardon, and is embroiled in a continentwide corruption scandal.

The trip, which begins in Chile on Monday and lasts until Jan. 21, is the pope’s 22nd foreign journey and the sixth to his home continent.

The first Latin American pope in history will meet with indigenous groups in both Chile and Peru, evidence of his longstanding commitment to supporting native Americans in their struggles against poverty, discrimination, and the exploitation of their lands.


The Chilean stop is more delicate: Francis will celebrate Mass for the Mapuche in southern Araucania on Wednesday and then break bread with a dozen or so indigenous people at a private lunch.

But the visit comes as some radical Mapuche groups have been staging violent protests, occupying and burning farms, churches, and lumber trucks to demand the return of their land. Protests are planned in Temuco during Francis’ visit.

Chile’s largest indigenous group resisted conquest for 300 years, until military defeats in the late 19th century forced them into Araucania. Many Mapuche there now live in poverty on the borders of timber company land or ranches owned by the descendants of the Europeans who colonized the area after the indigenous resistance was quelled.

Francis, whose defense of refugees and migrants is well-known, is expected to address Chile’s growing immigrant community when he travels Thursday to the northern city of Iquique, home to nearly two dozen migrant slums.

Even though its numbers are comparatively small, Chile had the fastest annual rate of migrant growth of any country in Latin America in 2010-2015, according to UN and church statistics. Most of the newcomers are Haitians.


Chile’s church has yet to recover its credibility after the scandal over the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a charismatic preacher who had a huge following in Santiago and was responsible for training hundreds of priests and five bishops.

The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of ‘‘penance and prayer’’ after confirming what his victims had been saying for years but what Chile’s Catholic leadership refused to believe: that Karadima had sexually abused them.

Francis reopened the wounds of the scandal when in 2015 he named one of Karadima’s proteges as bishop of the southern diocese of Osorno. Karadima’s victims say Bishop Juan Barros knew about the abuse but did nothing, a charge Barros denies.

Osorno dissidents are planning protests in Santiago to coincide with Francis’ arrival Monday.

The pope frequently rails against corruption, calling it more insidious than sin and a plague that harms the poorest the most.

But if he utters the word ‘‘corruption’’ in Peru, it will have particular significance.

Last month, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski narrowly avoided impeachment after an investigative committee found the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht made $782,000 in payments to Kuczynski’s private consulting firm more than a decade ago when he was a minister.

The former chief executive of Odebrecht has admitted that company executives paid bribes and campaign contributions to secure public works contracts around the continent.

A giant Christ statue in Peru’s capital that was donated by Odebrecht was damaged Saturday in a fire.

When Francis flies deep into the Peruvian rainforest to meet with indigenous people at the end of his trip, he will be symbolically opening a major church meeting on the Amazon that is scheduled in Rome in October 2019.

The area around the confluence of two rivers on Peru’s southern border with Bolivia has the greatest biodiversity in Peru’s Amazon, but it is also home to a logging and gold-mining industry.