With stores burned and looted, Walmart seeks police protection in riot-hit Chile

By Aislinn Laing

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Walmart has sought court orders for police protection in protest-wracked Chile after more than 120 of its supermarkets were looted or burned.

The Chilean subsidiary of the U.S.-headquartered retailer  lodged orders with courts in six Chilean cities, saying the attacks on its stores had put its staff’s safety and jobs at risk, “gravely” affected its ability to operate in the country and caused it “enormous economic damage”.

“The state of Chile has failed to fulfill its duty to guarantee public order and internal public security,” it said in court documents submitted on Wednesday and made public on Monday.

It said the state had failed to protect its premises and staff with a “lack of timely reaction to evident vandalism”. The stores operate under the brandnames Lider, Express, aCuenta and Ekono in Chile.

Karla Rubilar, a representative for the Chilean government, told journalists on Monday that it had worked hard to safeguard business interests amid the unrest.

“We worked from day one not only with this company but with all companies and especially small- and medium-sized enterprises to guarantee public order and security,” she said. “We will always be available to work with whoever want us to.”

The court action – in the Chilean cities of Arica, Puerto Montt, Concepcion, Chillan, Temuco and Valdivia – comes after a month of violent riots and protests across the country that started over a hike in public transport fares and broadened to address simmering grievances over endemic inequality.

The protests have left at least 23 dead, 2,365 civilians hospitalized and as many as 14,000 arrested, according to police, prosecutors and human rights groups. The finance minister put the damage to property and public transport at $3 billion.

Walmart Chile, the local subsidiary of the world’s largest company, said in a statement it had experienced 1,200 episodes of lootings and fires at 128 of its approximately 400 stores. It said 34 supermarkets had been set on fire, and 17 of them destroyed.

The company said it had sought the protection orders to ensure its stores could continue supplying customers and will not seek reimbursement from the government for the damages.

(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; additional reporting Erik Lopez and Natalia Ramos; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Riot-hit Chile presses forward with social reforms

Riot-hit Chile presses forward with social reforms
By Dave Sherwood

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s president and lawmakers prepared on Thursday to push forward social equality reforms after the easing of riots in the latest flashpoint of protests against South American leaders.

Center-right leader Sebastian Pinera was to ship a bill to Congress that would overturn a recent hike in electricity rates, one of several measures he hopes will turn the violent demonstrations into an “opportunity” for Chile..

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno also repealed the elimination of fuel subsidies this month after protests, while Bolivia’s Evo Morales faced demonstrations over an election, and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri has suffered a backlash over economic turmoil.

In Chile, anger over inequality and cost of living sent tens of thousands into the streets to demand an overhaul in one of the region’s traditionally most stable, and wealthy, nations.

Over five days of unrest that appeared to be dying down on Wednesday night, more than 6,000 people have been detained and at least 16 killed.

Pinera’s proposed reforms include a guaranteed minimum wage, a hike in state pensions and reductions in public transportation costs. Some, such as a bill to provide insurance against catastrophic illness, have already been delivered to lawmakers.

Octavio Solis, 43, an unemployed security guard, said he hoped the government acted quickly.

“We’re tired of all this, the protests, the looting. It’s a disaster. This isn’t the Santiago we once knew,” Solis said as he waited in line to receive an unemployment payment.

“We need good salaries and pensions for our elderly.

CITY LIFE

The capital city of about 6 million people awoke to relative calm on Thursday, as vendors peddling orange juice and fruit cups once again appeared on street corners.

Public markets reopened and thousands of commuters, dressed in work outfits and clutching coffees, made their way to work on the still hobbled underground transport system that has suffered more than $300 million worth of damage.

Trash, broken glass, graffiti and tear gas lingered in the aftermath of protests that went late into Wednesday evening, but ended peacefully.

Thousands of striking workers, including healthcare professionals and teachers, banged pots and carried banners past darkness in Santiago and other cities.

The marches were closely monitored by police and soldiers.

The unrest has included arson attacks and looting. At least 18 people died, according to one official count. Chilean prosecutors have since clarified that two of the total died in a car accident unrelated to the riots.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Season of discontent: protests flare around the world

Season of discontent: protests flare around the world
(Reuters) – Another day, another protest.

On Monday it was Bolivia – angry people clashed with police after the political opposition said it had been cheated in an election won by incumbent President Evo Morales.

Last week, the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago descended into chaos, as demonstrators enraged by a hike in public transport fares looted stores, set a bus alight and prompted the president to declare a state of emergency.

Earlier this month, Ecuador’s leader did the same after violent unrest triggered by the decision to end fuel subsidies that had been in place for decades.

And that was just South America.

Hong Kong has been in turmoil for months, Lebanon’s capital Beirut was at a standstill, parts of Barcelona resembled a battlefield last week and tens of thousands of Britons marched through London at the weekend over Brexit.

Protests have flared around the world in the last few months. Each has had its own trigger, but many of the underlying frustrations are similar.

Globalization and technological progress have, in general, exacerbated disparities within countries, said Sergei Guriev, former chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, while noting that not all of the current protests were driven by economic concerns.

Digital media has also made people more acutely aware of global inequalities, said Simon French, chief economist at UK bank Panmure Gordon.

“We know that the economics of happiness is largely driven by a relative assessment of your position versus your benchmark,” he said, a benchmark that now stretched way beyond the local community.

ECONOMICS

In at least four countries hit by recent violent protests, the main reason for the uprising is economic.

Governments in Chile and Ecuador have incurred their people’s wrath after trying to raise fares and end fuel subsidies.

As clashes engulfed Quito, Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno reached out to indigenous leaders who had mobilized people to take to the streets.

Within minutes, chief protest organizer Jaime Vargas had rejected that outreach.

“We’re defending the people,” Vargas said in a live Facebook video from the march in Quito.

His response, visible to millions of people, underlines an added challenge authorities have when trying to quell dissent: social media has made communication between protesters easier than ever.

Tens of thousands of people have flooded Beirut in the biggest show of dissent against the establishment there in decades. People of all ages and religions joined to protest about worsening economic conditions and the perception that those in power were corrupt.

Similar factors were behind deadly civil unrest in Iraq in early October.

More than 100 people died in violent protests across a country where many Iraqis, especially young people, felt they had seen few economic benefits since Islamic State militants were defeated in 2017.

Security forces cracked down, with snipers opening fire from rooftops and the internet being shut to stem the flow of information among protesters.

GIVE US OUR AUTONOMY

Hong Kong has been battered by five months of often violent protests over fears Beijing is tightening its grip on the territory, the worst political crisis since colonial ruler Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

There have been few major rallies in recent weeks, but violence has escalated at those held, with militant activists setting metro stations ablaze and smashing up shops, often targeting Chinese banks and stores with mainland links.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, hundreds of rubber bullets and three live rounds at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing activists.

The events in Hong Kong have drawn comparisons to Catalonia in recent days. There, too, people are angry at what they see as attempts to thwart their desire for greater autonomy from the rest of Spain, if not outright independence.

Protesters set cars on fire and threw petrol bombs at police in Barcelona, unrest sparked by the sentencing of Catalan separatist leaders who sought to declare an independent state.

Demonstrators also focused on strategic targets to cause maximum disruption, including the international airport, grounding more than 100 flights.

That came several days after similar action in Hong Kong, suggesting that protest movements are following and even copying each other on social media and the news.

“In Hong Kong they have done it well, but they are crazier,” said Giuseppe Vayreda, a 22-year-old art student at a recent Catalan separatist protest.

On Thursday, Hong Kong protesters plan a rally to show solidarity with those demonstrating in Spain.

LEADER OR NO LEADER

In some cases, individuals rise to the forefront of protest movements, using social media to get their message across.

In Egypt, where demonstrations last month were relatively small yet significant in their rarity, the catalyst of dissent against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was an Egyptian posting videos from Spain.

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, inspired millions of people to march through cities around the world in September to demand that political leaders act to stop climate change.

Tens of thousands gathered in a New York park to listen to her speech.

“If you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us, then we have some very bad news for you,” she said. “Because this is only the beginning. Change is coming whether they like it or not.”

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Heather Timmons in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Sonya Hepinstall)

Chile scrambles to clean up mess after weekend of chaos, violent protests

Chile scrambles to clean up mess after weekend of chaos, violent protests
By Dave Sherwood and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean authorities scrambled on Monday to clear wreckage and re-open public transportation in the capital Santiago after a weekend of chaos in which at least seven people were killed amid violent clashes, arson attacks and looting in cities throughout Chile.

Several Chilean cities were engulfed by days of riots, along with peaceful protests, after a hike in public transport costs. The violence prompted President Sebastian Pinera to declare a state of emergency, placing the military in charge of security in the city of six million.

Transportation officials in Santiago brought in more than 400 buses to reinforce the city’s fleet Monday morning, and re-opened the downtown line of the metro providing east-west transportation across the city.

Most schools in the city closed, citing concerns of the safety of their workers and students.

Pinera extended the state of emergency late on Sunday night, saying “we are at war,” against vandals who had turned out in droves throughout the capital over the weekend.

Javier Iturriaga, the general in charge of Santiago’s security, said in a televised broadcast early Monday he had conducted an overflight of Santiago and was “very satisfied” with the situation. He said the military would nonetheless continue to provide security.

When asked by a reporter if the country was at war, as Pinera had said late Sunday, Iturriaga responded, “I’m not at war with anyone. I’m a happy man,” he said.

The metro, which suffered multiple arson attacks at stations throughout the city, was operating smoothly during the morning rush, albeit with many fewer people than on a typical Monday morning. Many businesses told their workers to stay home.

In downtown Santiago, street sweepers cleaned up broken glass, scrap metal and barricades that accumulated over several nights of protests.

Newly inked graffiti covered the face of nearly every building along many city blocks. Tear gas lingered in the air, forcing pedestrians to walk with faces covered.

Chile’s mining minister said on Sunday that the country’s mines operated normally through the weekend.

A union of workers at BHP’s Escondida copper mine, the world’s largest copper mine, told Reuters early on Monday it would walk off the job for at least a shift on Tuesday in a show of support for the demands of protesters.

Chile is the world’s top copper producer.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, additional reporting by Fabian Cambero; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Solar eclipse plunges Chile into darkness

A person observes a solar eclipse at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of tourists scattered across the north Chilean desert on Tuesday to experience a rare, and irresistible combination for astronomy buffs: a total eclipse of the sun viewed from beneath the world’s clearest skies.

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, plunging the planet into darkness. It happens only rarely in any given spot across the globe.

The best views this time were from Chile’s sprawling Atacama desert north of the coastal city of La Serena, where a lack of humidity and city lights combine to create the world’s clearest skies.

The region had not seen an eclipse since 1592, according to the Chilean Astronomy Society. The next one is expected in 2165.

Eclipse-watchers in Chile were not disappointed on Tuesday. The 95-mile (150-kilometer) band of total darkness moved eastward across the open Pacific Ocean late in the afternoon, making landfall in Chile at 4:38 p.m. EDT (2038 GMT).

Clear skies dominated from the South American country’s northern border with Peru south to the capital of Santiago, where office workers poured from buildings to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon.

Earlier in the day, a run on special “eclipse-viewing” glasses downtown had led to a shortage in many stores, with street vendors charging as much as $10 for a pair of the disposable, cardboard-framed lenses.

“This is something rare that we may never see again,” said Marcos Sanchez, a 53-year-old pensioner from Santiago who had purchased 16 of the lenses from an informal vendor downtown for himself and his family.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Pope opens child sex abuse conference, promising ‘concrete’ remedies

Pope Francis attends the four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis, at the Vatican February 21, 2019. Picture taken with a fish-eye lens. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis promised that concrete action against child sexual abuse by priests would result from a conference he opened on Thursday, with one cardinal acknowledging that the Church had to fight “the enemy within”.

Francis convened Catholic leaders from around the world for the four-day meeting to address the scandal that has ravaged the Church’s credibility in the United States – where it has paid billions of dollars in settlements – Ireland, Chile, Australia, and elsewhere over the last three decades.

His opening remarks appeared aimed at countering skepticism among victims who said the meeting looked like a public relations exercise.

“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” Francis told the assembled bishops and heads of religious orders. He asked them to “listen to the cry of the little ones who are seeking justice”.

Francis, opening the conference of nearly 200 participants in a Vatican auditorium, added that victims deserve “concrete and efficient measures” and not mere condemnations.

Victims were mixed in their response, with some expressing cautious optimism and others saying it was too little, too late.

Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota said the damage was home-grown, in large part because bishops had closeted themselves in a clerical mentality and some thought they could act with impunity.

“The first enemies are within us, among us bishops and priests and consecrated persons who have not lived up to our vocation. We have to recognize that the enemy is within,” he said.

The pope and the participants watched a video of five victims, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, telling painful stories of abuse and cover-up.

“From the age of 15, I had sexual relations with a priest. This lasted for 13 years. I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives,” a woman said.

“MURDERERS OF THE FAITH”

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean, said on the video that when he reported abuse to religious authorities he was treated as a liar and an enemy of the Church.

“You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed – in some cases – into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith. What a terrible contradiction,” he said.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines broke into tears as he read a keynote speech that acknowledged: “Wounds have been inflicted by us, the bishops, on the victims”.

A list of 21 “reflection points” written by the pope was handed out. The first was that each diocese should have a “practical handbook” on steps to be taken when cases emerge.

They included actions such as informing civil authorities of substantial accusations in compliance with local law and making sure non-clerics are involved in Church investigations of abuse.

“Putting together a handbook after all this time is laughable,” said Peter Isely, who was abused by a priest as a boy and now heads the advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse.

Most of the 21 points are already practiced in countries like the United States.

In Ireland, the sexual abuse scandal shattered the power of the Church which four decades ago dominated society. In the past four years, voters approved abortion and gay marriage, defying the Vatican.

In Chile, all of the country’s bishops offered their resignations to the pope last year over a widespread cover-up. Francis accepted seven of the resignations and dismissed two others from the priesthood.

A report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania last year revealed that priests had sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades in that U.S. state alone.

Before the conference started, some victims’ groups said the event was an attempt to cleanse the image of the 1.3 billion-member Church.

But Anne Barrett-Doyle of bishopaccountablity.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world, said she was pleasantly surprised by the pope’s opening remarks.

“They said this was going to just be a teaching session, but he is now talking about concrete measures. That’s good, but let’s see how it ends up,” she told Reuters.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. bishops delay action on clergy abuse at Vatican’s request

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (R), president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks with other attendees at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will delay action to deal with a crisis involving sexual abuse of minors by clergy until after a global meeting in February at the request of the Vatican, conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said on Monday.

The Catholic Church worldwide is reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors, deeply damaging confidence in the Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said the Congregation for Bishops in Rome had sent a letter asking U.S. bishops to wait until after the Vatican-convened global meeting on sex abuse takes place in February.

“We have accepted with disappointment this particular event that took place this morning,” Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said at a media conference on Monday, the opening day of the conference. “We have not lessened in any of our resolve for actions.”

In the United States, 13 state attorneys general have launched statewide investigations into sexual abuse by clergy.

In August, an 884-page report made public by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro stated that Roman Catholic priests in the state sexually abused nearly 1,000 children over a 70-year period and silenced victims through “the weaponization of faith” and a systematic cover-up campaign by their bishops.

The conference of bishops had expected to focus this week on measures to combat abuse, including establishing a new code of conduct, according to a September statement.

“We humbly welcome and are grateful for the assistance of the whole people of God in holding us accountable,” the statement said.

Terry McKiernan, co-director of victims’ advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, said the Pope’s intervention in this week’s conference was a frustrating setback.

“This situation is so terrible that the only way that it’s really going to be solved is if bishops convincingly demonstrate their remorse and concern,” McKiernan told Reuters in a phone interview.

DiNardo called the delay “a bump in the road” on Monday but said it does not reflect U.S. bishops’ lack of determination to deal with the issue.

“We were all set to move to reach an action stage here this week,” DiNardo said. “I don’t look upon any of this as a change in direction for the Catholic bishops of the United States.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Pope orders investigation of bishop as U.S. Church leaders meet on abuse crisis

Pope Francis meets U.S. Catholic Church leaders Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop of Los Angeles JosŽ Horacio G—mez, Cardinal Sean Patrick OÕMalley, Archbishop of Boston, and Monsignor Brian Bransfield, General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a private audience at the Vatican, September 13, 2018. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis has ordered an investigation of an American bishop accused of sexual misconduct with adults and accepted his resignation, the Vatican and U.S. Church officials said on Thursday.

The announcement was made as the pope was meeting U.S. Catholic Church leaders to discuss the fallout from a scandal involving a former American cardinal and demands from an archbishop that the pontiff step down.

The Catholic Church worldwide is reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors. Surveys show plummeting confidence in the Church the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland where the scandal has hit hardest, as well as in other countries.

The bishop who resigned is Michael J. Bransfield, 75, of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. The Vatican said the pope had appointed Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to run the diocese until a new bishop is appointed.

Neither the Vatican nor the Archdiocese of Baltimore gave any details of the specific allegations against Bransfield.

Neither Bransfield nor his legal representative could immediately be reached for comment.

The archdiocese of Baltimore’s website said the pope had instructed Lori to conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of adults by Bransfield.

“My primary concern is for the care and support of the priests and people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston at this difficult time,” Lori said in a statement.

“I further pledge to conduct a thorough investigation in search of the truth into the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield and to work closely with the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the diocese until the appointment of a new bishop,” he said.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Pope vows no more cover ups on sexual abuse in letter to Catholics

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis delivers a speech after a meeting with Patriarchs of the churches of the Middle East at the St. Nicholas Basilica in Bari, southern Italy July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis, facing sexual abuse crises in several countries, wrote an unprecedented letter to all Catholics on Monday, asking each one of them to help root out “this culture of death” and vowing there would be no more cover-ups.

In a highly personal letter addressed to “the people of God,” Church language for all members, the pope appeared to be launching an appeal for all Catholics to face the crisis together and not let it tear the Church apart.

The Catholic Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland – where the pope is making a two-day visit this weekend – are reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors. Numerous surveys have pointed to plummeting confidence in the Church in those countries and elsewhere.

In his letter, the pope referred to the suffering endured by minors due to sexual abuse at the hands of a “significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

The Vatican said it was the first time a pope had written to all of the world’s some 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse. Past letters on sexual abuse scandals have been addressed to bishops and faithful of individual countries.

“We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death,” he said.

Quoting a Gospel passage that says “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” Francis added:

“(Those words) forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the

gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote.

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse expressed disappointment. “More actions, less words,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based resource center that tracks cases of clerical abuse worldwide.

“He needs an effective discipline process for bishops and religious superiors who are known to have enabled abuse,” she said.

Last week a grand jury in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years.

CRYING OUT TO HEAVEN

He acknowledged that “the heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept

quiet or silenced”.

“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the implementation of a zero tolerance had been “delayed” in some places.

Victims groups have said that while new policies have been put into place in several countries to alert civil authorities about cases of abuse, the pope still needed to do more to hold accountable bishops who covered it up, mostly by moving priests from parish to parish.

In his first direct response to the U.S. grand jury report, Francis said that while most cases it listed “belong to the past,” it was clear that the abuse cited “was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced”.

Last month, Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and one of the U.S. Church’s most prominent figures, stepped down as a cardinal after accusations that he abused two minors about 50 years ago and later abused adult seminarians.

He was believed to be the first cardinal to lose his red hat in nearly a century and the first ever for alleged sexual abuse.

In May, all 34 of Chile’s bishops offered their resignation to the pope over a widening sexual abuse crisis there. He has so far accepted five of the resignations.

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, editing by Steve Scherer, Richard Balmforth)

‘There’s going to be a raid’: A Chilean prosecutor forces Catholic Church to give up secrets

Archbishop of Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Aislinn Laing and Cassandra Garrison

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Two special envoys sent by Pope Francis to investigate a child sex abuse scandal in Chile were meeting priests and Church workers at a university in the Chilean capital last month when aides rushed into the room with an alarming development: police and prosecutors were about to start raiding Church offices.

The envoys were 90 minutes into a seminar on how to investigate allegations of sex abuse committed by fellow clergy following revelations that hundreds of children might have been molested. For decades, the Roman Catholic Church in Chile quietly investigated such allegations without alerting police, but it now stands accused, even by Pope Francis himself, of a cover-up that allowed abusers to operate with impunity.

One of the clergymen listening to the envoys was Jaime Ortiz de Lazcano, the legal adviser to Santiago’s archbishop. The aides rushed to his side and told him, “‘Father, go to the (Church offices) because there’s going to be a raid’,” Ortiz later recounted.

Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who is leading an investigation against alleged sex abuse crimes by Roman Catholic priests, is seen at his work place in Rancagua, Chile, July 18, 2018. Picture taken July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Esteban Medel

Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who is leading an investigation against alleged sex abuse crimes by Roman Catholic priests, is seen at his work place in Rancagua, Chile, July 18, 2018. Picture taken July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Esteban Medel

Police and prosecutors were staging simultaneous raids on Church offices less than a mile away from the university and outside the capital, looking for evidence of sex crimes the Church had not reported to the police.

The surprise sweeps, ordered by Emiliano Arias, a provincial prosecutor, marked the start of what experts who track sex crimes in the Roman Catholic Church say is one of the most aggressive investigations ever undertaken by a judicial authority anywhere in the world.

Since that cold June afternoon, there have been five more raids on Church offices to seize documents, phones, tablets, and computers, leaving the Vatican scrambling to respond to a rapidly unfolding scandal that is the worst image crisis of Francis’ papacy, now in its sixth year.

Leading the charge against the Church is Arias, 45, who is experienced in fighting organized crime and has a showman’s fondness for taking television news crews on the raids.

Arias told Reuters in an exclusive interview that documents seized by his team contained 30 cases of alleged abuse dating back to 2007 that the Church had not reported to the police. While Reuters was allowed to film his investigators poring through seized documents, he declined to give details from the files because he said they named victims of abuse.

He also alleged that some local Church officials had tried to destroy documents but that his team – made up of two prosecutors, three lawyers and a unit of specialist sex crime police – had salvaged them. He declined to say who had tried to destroy them or how they had tried to get rid of them.

Citizens hold a banner reading "They will not steal our hope" as Archbishop of Santiago Ricardo Ezzati (not pictured) attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Citizens hold a banner reading “They will not steal our hope” as Archbishop of Santiago Ricardo Ezzati (not pictured) attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Reuters was unable to independently confirm those assertions.

Víctor Villa Castro, head of communications for the Santiago archbishopric, said he could not comment on any cases under investigation by Arias.

“We would, however, say that we have no knowledge of the destruction of documents, nor the covering-up of crimes,” he said. “The victims are the first, and most important, in this and we will cooperate with the civil authorities in any way that can help to get to the truth of these matters.”

Arias says he wants to arrest both those who perpetrated the abuse and those who he says helped to cover it up. He arrested Oscar Munoz, a top aide to Santiago’s archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, after seizing church documents in which Munoz confessed to sex crimes. Munoz’s lawyer has acknowledged that some of the accusations in the documents are true but says he will challenge some others.

Arias last week named Ezzati, the most senior Roman Catholic in Chile, as a suspect, accusing him of covering up his aide’s alleged abuses. Ezzati has denied any wrongdoing and promised to cooperate.

Arias said he launched the raids after Church officials in Rancagua, the capital of O’Higgins region, told him he would have to make a formal petition to the Vatican to obtain information he was seeking because it was protected by ‘pontifical secret.’

A spokesman for the Rancagua archbishop’s office said they were told to do this by the Vatican and insisted they were cooperating fully with civil authorities. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke declined to comment.

The Roman Catholic Church says the ‘pontifical secret’ provision in canon law is intended to protect the privacy of all involved in sex abuse claims. Critics say bishops have historically used it as a shield to block inquiries from civil authorities.

“We are not talking about a fraud, or a theft, we are talking about crimes against children,” Arias said in an interview in his office in Rancagua, explaining his decision not to submit the request to the Vatican and instead get a judge to approve the raids.

‘CULTURE OF ABUSE’

Allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy are not new, but under Chilean law governing the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church, a powerful and politically influential institution in this conservative Andean nation, has no legal obligation to report the allegations to police.

The sex abuse scandal came to a head after Pope Francis visited in January and was initially dismissive of claims by survivors of a cover-up by top Church officials there. A backlash among advocates for abuse survivors prompted him to dispatch an investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who produced a confidential 2,300-page report on the allegations.

After receiving the report Pope Francis wrote an open letter to Chile’s faithful in May in which he decried “the culture of abuse and the system of cover-up” by the Church in Chile.

He summoned all 34 of Chile’s bishops to Rome in May where they offered to resign en masse. He has so far accepted five resignations and is expected to accept more.

Arias speaks mostly without emotion during the hour-long interview until he talks about how, according to their accusers, priests convinced their victims that they were doing nothing wrong. Then he displays flashes of anger, sometimes so impassioned that he trips over his words.

“I have seen some tough cases but what shocks me about all this is the abuse of conscience – how an accused (Church worker) has entered into the soul of another person and is capable of convincing him that satisfying his desires is not even a sin,” said Arias, who describes his family as “very Catholic” but says he has lapsed.

Arias said he can prosecute senior Church officials for covering up the abuses if he can prove they knew about the systematic abuse and failed to do anything to stop it, or hid evidence to prevent civil authorities from getting involved.

But first he must prosecute the abusers, said Maria Ines Horvitz, a senior lawyer at the State Defense Council of Chile, a public agency that provides legal advice to the Chilean state. And to do that he must find cases within the 10-year statute of limitations – a potential problem that has bedeviled prosecutors in other countries – or turn to the one court in Chile that still handles cases from before roughly 2000, which is backlogged.

PROSECUTORIAL ZEAL

The national public prosecutor instructed all provincial prosecutors last month to pursue sex abuse allegations more vigorously.

But Arias has gone much further than his colleagues in his zeal to bring prosecutions. He has repeatedly widened his remit, from a handful of cases to dozens, from his provincial base to the capital, and from investigating claims of abuse by 14 priests in Rancagua to the alleged complicity of Ezzati, Santiago’s archbishop, himself.

As a result of his uncovering new cases in Church documents, the national prosecutor last week authorized him to expand his investigation into other regions.

BishopAccountability.Org, which tracks allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, says the only comparable investigation into sex abuse in the Church was in Belgium in 2010 when police launched coordinated raids on Church offices and the home of a cardinal. That investigation did not lead to any prosecutions because of the statute of limitations.

Arias is carrying out his investigation in the absence of any public backing from the center-right Sebastian Pinera government. Shortly before becoming president in March, Pinera criticized the Church for its “defensive” attitude to the scandal and “insufficient” investigations but has remained silent on the issue since.

A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

WHY NOW?

For decades allegations of sexual abuse by priests swirled through Chilean society, but little was done to address them. The Church was largely left to police itself.

But this year that suddenly changed.

Church watchers say several factors contributed to this watershed moment – the international attention received by several victims who went public; the pope’s initial poor handling of the claims; and the ripple effect of the global #MeToo movement.

The Church’s grip on Chile is also weakening, public opinion polling shows, even though the formerly predominately Catholic nation remains largely conservative on social issues.

The waning support for the Church was evident when the pope visited Chile in January – there were many empty seats at his public masses. This was “a turning point for Francis’ papacy” a Vatican official said. “It is when he realized that he was listening to the wrong people about the real situation in Chile.”

For Arias, the pope’s subsequent mea culpa that the Church had covered up abuses gave him the impetus he needed to act. “His description of what was happening in Chile was powerful and should concern us all,” he said.

(Reporting by Aislinn Lange and Cassandra Garrison in Santiago; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Ross Colvin and Paul Thomasch)