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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Pope's visit to Chile mired by memories of Church's murky past 

Vandals firebombed a handful of Santiago churches and warned that Francis would be next

Pope Francis receives a reproduction of the car used by father Alberto Hurtado, a Chilean saint, as he meets reporters during his flight to Santiago. Alessandra Tarantino / AP
Pope Francis receives a reproduction of the car used by father Alberto Hurtado, a Chilean saint, as he meets reporters during his flight to Santiago. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Pope Francis' visit to Chile was always going to be fraught, but it has taken on an unprecedented degree of opposition with the firebombings of Catholic churches ahead of his Monday arrival and protests by Chileans fed up with priest sex abuse and cover-up.

Francis is coming to a country where around 60 per cent of Chileans declare themselves to be Roman Catholics, but where the church has lost the influence and moral authority it once enjoyed thanks to sex scandals, secularization and an out-of-touch clerical caste.

"I used to be a strong believer and churchgoer," said Blanca Carvucho, a 57-year-old secretary in Santiago. "All the contradictions have pushed me away."

The pope will try to reverse the trend during his three-day visit, which gets underway on Tuesday with a series of protocol visits for church and state, and will be followed by a three-day trip to neighboring Peru, where a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck on Monday.

In Chile, he plans sessions with migrants, members of Chile's Mapuche indigenous group and victims of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship. It remains to be seen if he will meet with sex abuse survivors. A meeting isn't on the agenda, but such encounters never are.

Chile's church earned wide respect during the regime of Genenral Augusto Pinochet because it spoke out against the military's human rights abuses, but it began a downward spiral in 2010 when victims of a charismatic, politically connected priest came forward with allegations that he had behaved in inappropriate ways towards them.

Local church leaders had ignored the complaints against the Reverend Fernando Karadima for years, but they were forced to open an official investigation after the victims went public and Chilean prosecutors started investigating.

The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Mr Karadima to a lifetime of "penance and prayer" for his crimes, but the church leadership hasn't won back Chileans' trust for having covered up Mr Karadima's crimes for so long.

"The Karadima case created a ferocious wound," said Chile's ambassador to the Holy See, Mariano Fernandez Amunategui.

Separately, vandals firebombed a handful of Santiago churches and warned that Francis would be next. Never before has such violence and opposition greeted Francis ahead of a foreign visit.

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