By Aislinn Laing
(Reuters) – Chilean police and prosecutors investigating accusations of sexual abuse by clerics launched simultaneous raids on Friday on the offices of archbishops in two cities in the country’s south, officials said.
Sexual crimes specialists from Chile’s investigative police unit questioned staff and seized documents in the offices of the Roman Catholic archbishops of Temuco and Villarrica in the region of Araucanía 450 miles south of Santiago.
Roberto Garrido, a spokesman for the Temuco prosecutor’s office, told reporters that officials had a warrant to seize documents related to sexual abuse allegations against church staff dating back to 2000.
He said five priests in the region were presently under investigation for alleged sexual abuse.
The raids were the latest by police and prosecutors as the Chilean state takes on the powerful Catholic church, which has been accused of failing to properly investigate abuse that victims’ groups have said was widespread.
They came on the same day the most senior figure in the Chilean church to be criminally implicated in the abuse scandal appeared in court.
Óscar Muñoz, the former chancellor to Santiago’s Archbishop, faces an unspecified number of charges for alleged sexual abuse of at least five minors up until last year. He appeared in court in the city of Rancagua, 50 miles (80 km) south of Santiago, and was remanded to custody until his next hearing.
Emiliano Arias, the Rancagua prosecutor, told reporters after the hearing that Muñoz faced between two and 15 years in prison if found guilty.
“It is no small thing that these very serious and repeated crimes are said to have been committed inside the church, inside a priest’s home,” he said.
Claims of sexual abuse and cover-up within Chile’s Catholic church came to the fore after Pope Francis visited the Andean country in January.
Since then, the pontiff has ordered an investigation by Vatican officials that found Chile’s bishops guilty of “grave negligence” in their handling of the crisis.
In May, the pope summoned more than 30 of the bishops to Rome, where they collectively offered to resign over the sex abuse scandal. Since then, the pontiff has accepted the resignations of five bishops.
(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Toni Reinhold)