Prosecutor in Chilean sex abuse scandal targets bishops

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Emiliano Arias (R), who is leading the investigation into a cover-up of sexual abuse by the Chilean church, pictured in Santiago on July 12, 2018

The prosecutor in charge of investigating a massive sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Chile said several bishops could face charges after he questions the Cardinal Archbishop of Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati, for the first time next week.

Prosecutor Emiliano Arias will on Tuesday take a statement from Ezzati, the head of the church in Chile, who has denied allegations that he covered up cases of abuse, including those by a top aide who was jailed earlier this year.

Other bishops "whose actions are being analyzed, could also be accused," Arias told AFP in an interview at the Rancagua prosecutor's office 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Santiago.

State prosecutors began investigating scores of abuse cases last month after outrage around the country over the church's own probe into decades of abuse by priests, crimes over which it often failed to take any action or handed down too-lenient punishments. Now bishops and other priests accused of abuse in Chile will face the full force of secular law.

Arias said he will have to determine if Ezzati "fulfilled or failed to fulfill his obligations" to protect victims and enforce church regulations.

Ezzati has come under pressure after prosecutors ordered a search of church headquarters in Santiago after it refused to hand over documents linked with how it dealt with abuse cases.

"The church should have acted immediately to denounce the abuse. It is in its interest to make it stop," says Arias. He pointed out that "not having an obligation to report (abuse) does not mean they are forbidden" to do so.

Chilean prosecutors announced last month they were investigating 158 members of the church, both priests and lay people.

The cases related back as far as the 1960s and involved 266 victims, including 178 children and adolescents.

Pope Francis has already apologized repeatedly to Chileans over the scandal, admitting the Church failed "to listen and react" to the allegations, but vowed to "restore justice."

In May, the entire Chilean hierarchy of bishops who Francis summoned to Rome, tendered their resignations over the pedophile priests scandal.

So far, five Catholic bishops have resigned and a priest, Oscar Munoz -- a former top aide to the archbishop - was jailed for the abuse of at least seven minors.

- Trials in six to eight months -

The first cases will come to trial within "six to eight months" Arias told AFP. He said cases where clerics are charged with covering up crimes would take longer, being more "difficult" to prove wrongdoing.

"The fact that a person is cited as being complicit in a cover-up does not mean that they are guilty," he cautioned.

Arias has lashed out at the church over the destruction of evidence in the sex-abuse cases but said he was confident it "will help more than hinder" him in an attempt to apportion blame in the cases.

What matters more, he says, is that "the victims come forward" with evidence so the perpetrators can be tried before ordinary courts.

Arias says around half of the cases are subject to the statute of limitations, though investigating them will help "to specify the behaviour deployed in the past" by church authorities, especially the tactics they used to conceal abuse.

The prosecutor does not think the sex abuse scandal in Chile is comparable to the church scandal in Pennsylvania, where prosecutors found more than 1,000 children had been abused over decades by some 300 priests, while bishops covered up their crimes.

"Hopefully it is different because here the authorities in charge of public criminal prosecution have acted against the perpetrators," he says.