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U.S. Catholic Church's Latino Survival Strategy Takes Big Sex Abuse Hit – In Latin America

Marcelo Ruiz Mendoza
Convicted pedophile and Roman Catholic priest Nicola Corradi is wheeled out of a courtroom in Mendoza, Argentina, on Monday by Argentine police.


Even by the satanic standards of all the clerical sexual abuse cases the world has learned of, this one is especially evil.

On Monday, two Roman Catholic priests in Argentina were convicted of sexually abusing 20 minors between 2005 and 2016 at a school for deaf children. Nicola Corradi and Horacio Corbacho (no, I’m not forgetting the “Reverend” title that usually precedes priests’ names; I just can’t stomach using it here) were sentenced to more than 40 years in prison. Two nuns are set to go on trial for allegedly aiding the pedophiles.

But the most distressing aider and abettor may have been the Vatican’s chief executive, Pope Francis – who is also Argentine. Francis knew as early as 2009 that Corradi was among two dozen priests accused of abuse at a school for deaf children in Italy. Yet the pontiff did nothing to remove Corradi from the school he’d been moved to in Argentina.

The nauseating case is another reason we can expect to see more Catholics leave the church in Latin America – and why, by extension, we could see fewer Catholics in the U.S. and South Florida.

READ MORE: Latin Americans Know Pope's Too-Late Letter Won't Solve Abuse Crisis. Priesthood Reform Might

It’s no secret that Latin America, the most stalwartly Catholic continent in the 20th century, is losing – hemorrhaging – Catholics in the 21st century to evangelical and other Protestant denominations. A generation ago Latin America’s population was still about 90 percent Catholic. Five years ago the Pew Research Center reported that share had plummeted to 69 percent.

That was before the sexual abuse plague – or more accurately, revelations of it – really hit the church in Latin America. Until then Latin American Catholics, who live in a region with some of the world’s worst social inequality, were bolting the church because they found their priests and bishops arrogantly disconnected from their on-the-ground lives. Evangelical pastors, meanwhile, tended to be more engaged with their earthly as well as heavenly needs.

The U.S. Catholic church is counting on Latinos, especially Latin American immigrants, to shore up its falling membership. But they too – thanks in no small part to the sexual abuse crisis here and in Latin America – are leaving the church.

Then in this decade Latin Americans, like Americans a decade before, realized ordained child molesters had been running amok in their midst – and largely undetected by parishioners and authorities alike due to the criminal cover-up by bishops. From Mexico to Chile the abuse scandals started bursting like blisters, outraging even the most faithful.

Making it worse are charges that Francis has been largely AWOL during the crisis – installing a bishop in Chile, for example, even though that prelate was credibly accused of shielding a pedophile priest. (The bishop has since resigned.) Now the Pope is under heavy scrutiny for failing to confront the Argentine horror.

What’s ironic is that Francis was elected six years ago largely because the church’s cardinals hoped a Latin American pontiff would stanch the continent’s Catholic exodus. Instead it’s gotten worse. Last year, as Francis admitted his “serious mistakes” in the Chilean debacle, the Chile-based firm Latinobarómetro found only 59 percent of Latin Americans call themselves Catholic. It estimated by 2030 Latin America won’t even be majority Catholic anymore.

That has serious implications for the U.S. Catholic church, especially in Latino-heavy regions like South Florida.


The American church, thanks in no small part to the American abuse nightmare, is itself losing members – at twice the rate of Protestant denominations, according to Pew. At the start of this century, a quarter of the U.S. population was Catholic; today only a fifth is. The church is counting on Latinos, especially Latin American immigrants, to make up for the drop: they now account for a third of U.S. Catholics.

Credit Mario Mendoza Cabrera / AP
Protesters shout at bishops arriving at the cathedral in Osorno, Chile, in 2015 for the installation of Bishop Juan Barros, who was accused of shielding a pedophile priest.

The big problem with that plan is that Latinos, no doubt reflecting the Latin American trend, are also leaving the Catholic church. Last month a Pew survey foundonly 47 percent of U.S. Latinos say they’re Catholic – a plunge from 57 percent a decade ago. The falloff is even sharper among younger Latinos.

More ominous for the U.S. church is that much of the Latino cohort it hopes will refill its pews is of Central American origin. Surveys indicate Central Americans are abandoning the Catholic church for evangelical churches at twice the rate other Latin Americans are.

The real, broader solution isn’t demographic strategy. It’s reform of the archaically flawed church institutions that allowed the abuse cancer to metastasize so monstrously around the world. Two-thirds of Chileans today say priests should be allowed to marry and women be ordained. Not because they think it will prevent pedophilia – but because they believe the priesthood’s celibate and all-male fraternity helps create a mindset that prioritizes church preservation over children’s protection.

Even children as vulnerable as the deaf.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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