A man leaves the headquarters of the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference after authorities raided the building in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. Police raided the place as part of a widespread investigation into sex abuse committed by members of the Marist Brothers order in the South American country, prosecutors said. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Chile authorities raid Episcopal Conference in abuse probe

August 14, 2018 - 12:46 pm

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chilean authorities raided the headquarters of the Catholic Church's Episcopal Conference on Tuesday as part of a widespread investigation into sex abuse committed by members of the Marist Brothers order in the South American country, prosecutors said.

The raids by investigating prosecutors and Chile's equivalent of the FBI took place at one of the most important buildings of the Chilean church in the capital of Santiago. Investigating prosecutor Raul Guzman, who confirmed the raid, is probing more than 35 accusations of abuse committed against former students at schools run by the Marists, who are religious brothers, not priests.

Guzman told local news media that investigators were collecting information to help identify victims.

After leaving the Episcopal Office headquarters, the investigators went to the offices of the Marist order and also collected information there, according to Alejandro Pena, an attorney for the order. He said he hoped the action would help resolve the case.

In a statement sent to The Associated Press, seven of the complainants said, "We feel profound satisfaction at seeing the advance of investigations needed to do justice."

They noted that there had been suspicions of attempts to destroy or hide documents — an allusion to a previous raid on a diocese where investigators found church workers trying to destroy documents.

An activist group that documents clerical abuse praised Tuesday's raids.

"The impunity of the Chilean hierarchy has ended. In Chile, we're seeing what happens when the Catholic church is treated as an ordinary corporate citizen," said Anne Barrett Doyle of the online abuse database BishopAccountability.org.

"Prosecutors in Chile have raised the bar for civil authorities in other countries. The children of Chile will be safer, survivors more likely to find justice, and the church ultimately stronger."

The Marists operate in dozens of countries around the world. The scandal in Chile came to light in August 2017, when the order revealed that at least 14 minors were abused from the 1970s until 2008 by Abel Perez, a brother who worked at two of the order's schools, and it reported him to prosecutors. Then it acknowledged that another Marist sexually abused five students.

But many Chileans were outraged when the order admitted that Perez had confessed in 2010 — seven years earlier. Victims have also filed a criminal complaint against three Catholic priests, a Capuchin brother and six Marists. In that complaint and in interviews with The Associated Press, they have recounted numerous abusive encounters.

Pope Francis sent the Vatican's leading expert on clerical sex abuse, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to investigate allegations against Bishop Juan Barros, who was accused by victims of witnessing their abuse and ignoring it, as well as allegations of abuse involving the Marist Brothers, Salesian and Franciscan orders.

After receiving the report, the pope denounced a "culture of abuse and cover-up" in Chile's Catholic Church and said he was ashamed that neither he +nor Chilean church leaders truly ever listened to victims as the abuse scandal spread.

Last week, however, victims were disappointed when Francis said in letter to the Chilean church's Episcopal Conference that he was "impressed by the reflection, discernment and decisions" taken by bishops after they recently met to discuss the avalanche of scandals.

Chilean prosecutors also recently summoned the archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, to appear in court and testify about the alleged cover-up of years of abuse.

In May, 31 bishops offered their resignation to the pope. So far Francis has accepted the resignations of five.

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Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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