SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Soon after she learned what happened, Helmut Kramer’s mother grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the priest out of photographs from her son’s baptism.
“She kept the photos after that,” said Kramer, who was sexually abused at age 12 in a Jesuit school in Antofagasta, a city in northern Chile.
“My mom is still Catholic, but she never attended Mass again. She says that she will never set foot in a church, and she does not trust the pope or any priest,” the 53-year-old Chilean said.
His mother’s feelings echo hundreds of Chileans who have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church since 2010, when victims of another priest, Fernando Karadima, raised awareness about clergy sex abuse in the South American country.
The Karadima case shook the Vatican itself and marred Pope Francis’ trip to Chile in 2018. Instead of applause, he was greeted with unprecedented protests against a papal visit. The scenario worsened when Francis accused Karadima’s victims of slander. He later admitted he made “grave errors” in judgment and invited them to Rome to beg their forgiveness.
According to polling firm Latinobarómetro, the decline in confidence in the Chilean Catholic Church is one of the largest in Latin America. It fell from 77% in 1996 to 31% in 2020. Currently half of Chile’s 18 million population identify as Catholic and the number of religiously unaffiliated rose from 18% in 2010 to 35% in 2020.
“This wasn’t a crisis, this was a cultural break from the Catholic Church,” said Chilean historian Marcial Sánchez. “Chilean society felt cheated by the church.”
There has been little justice in cases of clerical abuse. Some offenders were defrocked, but few have received criminal convictions, according to advocates. Some died before receiving any punishment from the church or the courts.
Not long after the pope’s visit, Helmut Kramer joined other victims to launch “Red de Sobrevivientes Chile” (Chile’s Survivors Network), which widened its scope to support victims abused in foster homes, scout groups and sports clubs.
“We created the first map of abusers in an ecclesiastical context and introduced a political discourse: The problem of abuse is a human rights issue and must be treated accordingly,” Kramer said.
Human rights violations are a sensitive topic for Chileans who still mourn the losses of loved ones during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Kramer himself grew up during those tough times and now realizes how the political scenario influenced his own abuse experience.
“We were in a context in which everything was quiet. You couldn’t speak about anything,” Kramer said.
And so, for 35 years, he kept silent.
The first time he spoke about his case, Jaime Concha was a 55-year-old doctor watching the news after a long day at the hospital. What he saw on TV shocked him: a report about victims claiming clergy sex abuse at the Marist Brothers’ school where he studied from age 10.
It took him a few minutes to turn to his wife and say: “That happened to me as well.”
Hoping for understanding and comfort, her reaction left him speechless. “Breaking the silence relieves you, but you also feel responsible for the suffering you share,” Concha said. “When I told my partner, it was unbearable for her.” She called him an anti-gay slur and accused him of hiding his sexuality from her.
Four decades before that, when he was abused by several Marist Brothers and priests from his school, he wasn’t even sure that the abuse had taken place at all.
“The first time it happened, I thought it had been something I had made up,” Concha said. “The Marist Brothers were representatives of God. Not just power figures, but our connection to God.”
It took him years and endless nights of guilt, self-loathing and mistrust to process that what happened to him was abuse.
“I had every reason to throw myself off the balcony,” he said. “Then why am I still alive? Because despite everything, there is a God who loves me.”
Now 60 years old, Concha said, “I still believe in a God who has always taken care of me, who has allowed me to be on the brink and has never thrown me off the precipice.”
During the four years that he was abused by the priest who was supposed to mentor him, a question circled Javier Molina’s mind: If God was supposed to protect me, why did he allow this to happen?
He met his abuser when his family moved to a new district in Santiago and Molina expressed his wish to become a priest. “He showed interest in me from the first day and said that he was going to be my spiritual guide,” Molina said.
One Sunday, the priest showed up at his house and told Molina’s mother: “I’ll take Javier to the beach.” Pressured by fear of losing her job as his secretary at the parish, she agreed. Her son was 14. The priest, 48.
“I don’t know how long I cried, but I remember that I fell asleep, and I woke up when he banged on the bathroom door,” said Molina, explaining what happened at the priest’s beach house. “We had breakfast, he celebrated Mass and made me feel guilty. He said that the devil tempted his faithfulness to God.”
On the way back from the beach, Molina said, the priest threatened him. If you ever speak about this, the priest told him, I’ll tell everyone that you are gay, and I’ll make sure your mother never finds another job.
“It was shocking to realize that people doubted my testimony because I was close to him,” Molina said. “It’s so hard to explain that I had no choice.”
Many Chilean victims who became activists to advocate for children’s rights share a common thought. For them, what underlies clergy sex abuse is not the Catholic Church or any other institution, but the asymmetrical use of power.
“The Pope himself said that this is a matter of abuse of power in abusive cultures, of cover-ups that ensure impunity,” said one of Karadima’s victims, José Andrés Murillo, who met with Francis at the Vatican in 2018.
“People have the right to live their faith without being abused,” Murillo said.
He, too, wished to become a priest once. When he met Karadima in an upper-class neighborhood in Santiago at age 15, the priest was expected to become a saint.
“I think we are still just seeing the tip of the iceberg of the violence of the churches toward children,” Murillo said.
He is now the director of Fundación para la Confianza (the Trust Foundation), which offers free psychological, judicial and emotional support for abuse survivors. Murillo said that new victims reach out to him every single day.
“Traumatic experiences open up a space toward self-destruction, toward the destruction of others or to find a way to fight,” he said. “I don’t want other people to experience what I experienced.”
Though he’s not a Catholic and does not believe in God anymore, spirituality plays a key role in his life. To him, love, friendship and beauty transcend people. Pain, suffering and trauma can be transformed into resilience.
“I’ve had the chance to see the face of evil, and I know what I want to fight against.”
When Helmut Kramer decided to speak up, the priest who abused him was more than 90 years old. A friend called him and said: “If you don’t talk now, he’s going to die, and no one will know what he did.”
Two days after talking to a local journalist, Kramer made the cover of a newspaper. Crying strangers hugged him in the street. A few people from Antofagasta criticized him for “damaging” the public image of his old school.
He also received a message that would change his life. “I am a survivor too and I just want to tell you that you’re not alone and we will never keep silent again.” The sender was Eneas Espinoza, who went on to co-found Red de Sobrevivientes with Kramer.
Though they’ve never met in person – Espinoza lives in Argentina – they think of each other as brothers who share the goal of demanding justice and preventing others from facing their fate.
“This is not a battle, and we are not soldiers,” Espinoza said. “The Catholic Church is not our enemy. Abusers are not our enemies; they are people who committed crimes and there is an institution that guarantees impunity.”
Dozens of activists like them pushed for removing the statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes against children, which ended up happening in 2019 under President Sebastián Piñera. Now Red de Sobrevivientes hopes that President Gabriel Boric keeps his promise to create a Truth, Justice and Reparation Commission.
Every step taken by a sex abuse victim is an attempt to heal. “You carry this survival in your body because the site of the crime is yourself,” Espinoza said.
Aside from his activism, and as part of this healing path, Kramer tries to laugh. With a smile across his face, he recalls the day he became an apostate.
On a 2019 afternoon, he headed to the Archdiocese of Santiago and handed in his baptism certificate. When the employee on duty asked why he wanted to renounce Catholicism, he said: “Do you see the name of that priest? He raped me.”
When he got out, he started shouting: “I am an apostate!” Kramer joyfully recalls. Celebrations followed. “I bought myself lunch. I took a selfie, and everyone congratulated me,” he said.
“It was a feast.”
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