Chile archbishop remains silent over abuse cover-up claims

Santiago Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati declined to answer questions about accusations he was involved in a cover-up. (AFP pic)

RANCAGUA: Santiago Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati on Wednesday went before a prosecutor investigating a sex abuse scandal that has roiled the Catholic Church but declined to answer questions about accusations he was involved in a cover-up.

The highest-ranking member of the church in Chile, Ezzati entered the prosecutor’s offices in the southern town of Rancagua under heavy police guard and surrounded by media.

A solitary protester brandished a sign that read: “Depraved Roman Church.”

After an hour being interviewed by Emilio Arias – the prosecutor investigating decades of sexual abuse of minors by Chilean priests – 76-year-old Ezzati left the courthouse saying: “We are all going to collaborate with everything.”

Hugo Rivera, his lawyer, said the cardinal had used his right not to answer questions about accusations he covered up the sexual abuse of minors, in particular crimes committed by a top diocesan aide.

“For now the cardinal has not spoken until we speak with the public prosecutor’s office about the definitive dismissal” of the charges, the lawyer said.

He insisted the cardinal “is innocent”.

Arias began investigating scores of abuse cases in July after outrage over the church’s own probe into decades of abuse by priests, crimes for which it often failed to take any action or handed down lenient punishments.

Pope Francis, who has removed several Chilean bishops over the scandal, admitted there was a “culture of abuse” within the Chilean church after sending investigators from the Vatican.

The pontiff said the church had failed “to listen and react” to the allegations, and vowed to “restore justice.”

Arias’ office said in August that it was investigating 119 cases of abuse against Chile’s clergy going back to 1960.

“We are going to prosecute anyone who has committed crimes,” Arias told reporters after questioning Ezzati.

“There is no witch hunt,” he said. “If there is a crime, we will prosecute….we will accuse and go to trial,” he said.

Ezzati has denied allegations that he covered up cases of abuse, including those of a top aide, Oscar Munoz. Munoz, 56, is under house arrest while a probe continues into allegations he raped at least seven children.

“The cowardly Ezzati goes to testify as an accused and decides not to speak so as not to incriminate himself,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, one of the victims of the most notorious abuser, ex-priest Fernando Karadima.

Karadima, once a revered Chilean cleric, was formally expelled from the Church by Pope Francis last Friday.