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The testimony

Listening to the victims: the Chilean experience

 Ascoltare le vittime: l’esperienza cilena  DCM-012
30 December 2021

Joint work of laity and clergy after the scandals

I would like to recount my experience starting with a few meaningful phrases my fellow travelers have given me.

“You’ve been learning as long as I’ve known you”.

These are the words that, in a tone of reproach, a victim addressed to me when we met on the occasion of a settlement signed between him and a religious community as part of the sanction applied in his case. We met in a providential way in 2011 when I got into his cab at the end of the second meeting of the newly established National Council of Prevention of Abuse and Accompaniment of Victims (henceforth “Council”) of the Episcopal Conference of Chile (CECh). Four years later, his words still resonate in my mind. That man taught me that I will have to continue learning.

My experience as a member of the Council, and as its president for three years (2018-2021), has been a personal journey and at the same time intimately united with that of the many people who, once they overcame the initial shock, mobilized themselves, commencing with Church institutions, to prevent the abuses committed in Chile. Victims and the media have led the way by choosing to break the silence and report it, while continuing to critically evaluate what has been done. However, addressing the reality of crimes committed within the Church also requires institutional commitment.

I deeply appreciate the way the victims were able to put into words the horror they suffered and their delicacy in narrating the unspeakable. I am embarrassed by the disbelief that surrounding their testimonies was the lack of institutional reaction and the slowness of the canonical process in the face of the urgency required to establish the truth and obtain sanctions. I have seen some lose their faith, others leave their ministry, and young people lose their confidence.

In my case, I have had the gift of a personal encounter with Christ and his Church and of being surrounded by people who have shown deep respect for my conscience as a sacred and inviolable sphere. I have been part of this people, this Church that wanders in Chile, walking together with pastoral agents, with so many married and unmarried lay people, young and old, with consecrated persons, priests and deacons, and with ecclesiastical authorities willing to be formed in such a way so that such crimes are not committed again in the ecclesial sphere. Never again. Not on our watch.

After graduating with a Law degree in 1992 in my Country, I studied canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University where I received my doctorate in 1999. Upon returning to Chile, in addition to my academic work, I was part of the CECh legal team that drafted a national protocol for the application of the first version of the universal norms on the most serious crimes (2003). Even then, we were aware of the first cases nationwide, which we approached primarily from a legal perspective. A national television program showed the reality of abuse at home in Chile. I believed it.

“If we limit ourselves to the legal arena, we impoverish the discourse”.

These words were spoken to me by a man, a victim, the first time I met him and his wife. The lesson for me was the legal field alone could not take on such horror.

Thanks to those who participated in the Anglophone Conference - a meeting of bishops and members of the national prevention councils of the English-speaking bishops’ conferences - I learned about the three-dimensional strategy for dealing with abuse in the Church: reception of complaints; prevention; and, accompaniment of victims. These are the three areas from which the Council’s work has developed as a body that guides criteria and policies for the bishops of Chile.

Diocesan institution, which is replicable in consecrated life (2011), provides for a body dedicated to prevention that covers these three areas. It was difficult to make it work because it depended largely on the level of community commitment and the leadership of the bishop.

In all 27 dioceses, people have been appointed to receive complaints, and to date another 886 have completed the course for trainers, an activity that has involved 44,745 faithful, who work in a paid or voluntary form in the Church in Chile (see Cuidado y Esperanza Guidelines, 2015). 

We have just completed a quantitative and qualitative study that provides us with additional elements of prevention. We focused on the relational dynamics of sexual abuse in the ecclesial context in order to know in order to prevent. From a quantitative point of view, we had access to the files –which were mainly canonical-, of 21 dioceses and 15 religious communities. This methodology has allowed us to know, based on what we have pursued, the reality of 168 aggressors of 461 persons amongst adults and minors, of whom 72.67% were male and 26.6% female. At the state level, to date, there have been 31 court rulings in which priests have been convicted.

Qualitatively, we interviewed at length 22 victims and 12 professionals working in the field of church sexual abuse. The use of strategies of seduction, control, eroticization of bondage, normalization, silencing, and the use of explicit violence and spiritual abuse emerged. 

“It is necessary to break the silence. We ask the victims”.

In the context of the Council, two counselors who later became my dear friends said these words to me. The Council has been a space for collaboration among laity, consecrated persons, bishops and priests, starting from our reality, knowledge and experience. Although the people have changed, it continues to be a privileged setting to speak sincerely, to discuss, to reach agreements, to evaluate courses of action, to suffer together because of misunderstanding or the slowness of processes, to rejoice over small steps and, always, to give thanks for the trust when the victims give us the gift of their experience. It is a synodal experience. Equally synodal has been the path of the text of the document Integridad en el servicio ecclesial (2020) with precise lines of conduct, a process in which about 1,500 lay, clergy and consecrated participated. The last institutional document concerned the elaboration of criteria-guidelines for bishops and ecclesiastical authorities in Chile (see Hacia Caminos de Reparación, 2021) in which the main proposal is to accompany the victim along the path of the procedure. We hope to approach the victim, their family, and the ecclesial community where the abuse took place. In doing so, they are active third parties (bystanders) and, in an institutional culture called upon to prevent it from happening, both by taking preventive measures to avoid abuse, to detect it early on and mitigate its first impact, and to repair it on a symbolic, spiritual and material level. 

Of course, everything said so far can be considered “too little too late,” and I agree. These steps should have been taken, or rather would have been necessary, in different times. These years have confirmed the intuition that emerged at the beginning, in 2011, that it would take generations to overcome all this, to regain trust, for the Church to become once again that place that I myself experienced as a space where our identity was forged in a climate of hope and trust that today seems so far away. However, it was equally devastating that the priests who led us when I was a girl lost their clerical status.

Starting from my own experience, I believe that all of this is part of the challenge of being a Catholic in my Country today. So as to participate in the changes without anyone separating us from the love of Christ (see Romans 8:35-39), animated by the hope that “a wounded Church is capable of understanding and being moved by the wounds of today's world, making them its own, suffering them, accompanying them, and moving to try to heal them” (Pope Francis, Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Chile, 2018). 

By Ana María Celis Brunet

Ana María Celis Brunet
is a Lawyer and Doctor of Canon Law. A full professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and a member of the National Council of the Chilean Church for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse and the Accompaniment of Victims and president of this body since 2018. She is a consultant to the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.