Sex abuse, political turmoil overshadow pope in Chile, Peru

2018-01-13 17:06
Pope Francis (Andrew Medichini, AP)

Pope Francis (Andrew Medichini, AP)

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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 overshadowed by the Catholic Church's dismal record confronting priestly sex abuse in Chile and political turmoil in Peru.

On the eve of the trip, vandals attacked five churches with firebombs in the Chilean capital of Santiago and warned in a leaflet that "the next bombs will be in your cassock." That 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.

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. But now, the Catholic Church in Chile has been largely marginalised, criticised 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.

Here are things to look for in Francis' January 15-21 trip, his 22nd overall and sixth to his home continent.

The pope and indigenous people

History's first Latin American pope 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 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, and pamphlets left Friday outside the burned churches in Santiago exhorted the Mapuche cause.

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 colonised the area after the indigenous resistance was quelled.

Migrants and the poor

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 American in 2010-2015, according to UN and church statistics.

Most of the newcomers are Haitians. While Chile isn't experiencing the anti-immigrant backlash seen in the UN and Europe, the incoming right-wing government of President Sebastian Pinera is looking to crack down.

In Peru, Francis will also visit Trujillo and the northern areas hard hit by floods and mudslides last March in the worst environmental calamity to strike Peru in nearly two decades. The El Nino storms killed more than 100 people and destroyed bridges, infrastructure and homes in hundreds of villages in an already poor area.

Peru's president estimates it will take $9bn for the country to rebuild within five years.

Sex abuse scandal

Chile's church has yet to recover its credibility following 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 on Monday.

Read more on:    pope francis  |  chile  |  peru

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