Santiago: Prosecutor have seized documents in raids on Roman Catholic Church offices in two Chilean cities as part of an investigation into growing clergy sex abuse scandals.
The surprise police raids on Wednesday targeted the headquarters of Santiago's Ecclesiastical Court and the diocese in Rancagua in the O'Higgins region, where 14 priests are accused of having had sexual relations with minors.
Ther aids took place as two investigators sent by Pope Francis met with Chilean prosecutors, including Attorney-General Jorge Abbott, to coordinate their response to scandals that have discredited the Chilean church and last month led all of its 30-plus active bishops to offer to resign over their collective guilt in failing to protect children from abusive priests.
"The commitment is to a greater collaboration between the institutions," Abbott said, adding that church and civilian authorities were going to set up a system to provide victims with the protections needed to come forward and freely lodge complaints.
Abbott said prosecutors met some resistance in the Rancagua raid, though they were satisfied with the information seized in both operations. He said in the coming days prosecutors would ask the Vatican for any information it has related to the investigations.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a special envoy from the Vatican, told reporters that it was "very important" that Church and state work together to protect children alleged to have been abused by priests and clergymen.
"The canonical process should in no way impede the right of people to exercise their right to civil justice," he said at a news conference in the capital Santiago.
Santiago Archbishop Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello said church officials "gave the prosecutor all the requested documentation." They were "available to cooperate with the civilian justice system in all that is required."
Prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who led the search in Santiago, said the church raids showed that in Chile "we are all subject to common justice."
Jaime Ortiz de Lazcano, the Archbishop of Santiago's legal advisor, said he was in a meeting with Scicluna when he was asked to go to a court hearing about the impending seizure of documents relating to an abuse case the Church had investigated in January.
"I was very surprised when they told me 'Father, go to the court because there's going to be a raid,'" he told reporters.
"It's not common that [prosecutors]) solicit information from a canonical investigation, but we are entirely willing to cooperate."
Prosecutor Emiliano Arias told reporters outside the Santiago raid that he was investigating "individuals working for the Catholic Church, not the Catholic Church itself."
"In Chile, everyone is subject to ordinary justice," Arias said.
Scicluna and the other Vatican investigator, Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, earlier put together a 2300-page report that prompted Francis to realise he had misjudged the Chilean situation.
On Monday, Francis began purging Chile's Catholic hierarchy over the avalanche of sex abuse and cover-up cases, starting with accepting the resignations of the bishop at the centre of the scandal and two others.
A Vatican statement said Francis had accepted the resignations of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Bishop Gonzalo Duarte of Valparaiso and Bishop Cristian Caro of Puerto Montt. He named a temporary leader for each diocese.
Barros has been at the centre of Chile's growing scandal ever since Francis appointed him bishop of Osorno in 2015 over the objections of the local faithful, the pope's own sex abuse prevention advisers and some of Chile's other bishops.
The critics questioned Barros' suitability to lead since he had been a top lieutenant of Chile's most notorious predator priest and had been accused by victims of witnessing and ignoring their abuse by that priest, the Reverend Fernando Karadima. Barros denied the charge, but he twice offered to resign in the ensuing years.
In 2011, the Vatican sentenced Karadima, a powerful preacher close to Chile's elite, to a lifetime of penance and prayer for his sex crimes.
But the Scicluna-Bertomeu report exposed a far bigger scandal that has implicated several religious orders. It also exposed evidence that the Chilean hierarchy systematically covered up and minimised abuse cases.
The findings opened a Pandora's Box of new accusations that led Francis to become the first pope to refer to a "culture of abuse and cover-up" in the Catholic Church.
The raids in Chile were reminiscent of the police search carried out in 2010 at the headquarters of the Catholic Church hierarchy in Belgium, which prompted Pope Benedict XVI to protest, calling it a "deplorable" intrusion in the Catholic Church's legal process.
Belgian police took away computers and hundreds of files amid rumors that church leaders were continuing to cover up abuse cases. The raid prompted a Catholic panel investigating abuse to shut down in protest, saying Belgian authorities had betrayed the trust of nearly 500 victims who made complaints to the panel.
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