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Chile's most senior Catholic Church figure sidesteps prosecutor questioning

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By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda and Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – The archbishop of Santiago, the most senior figure in Chile’s Roman Catholic Church, has exercised his right to silence after being summoned on Wednesday morning for questioning by a state prosecutor over allegations he helped cover up child abuse.

Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati faces multiple charges of cover up, including some relating to the case of Oscar Munoz, a former top aide to the Santiago Archbishopric, who is facing trial on charges he abused and raped at least five children.

The Catholic Church in Chile and elsewhere is facing widespread accusations of sexual misconduct by priests and non-clergy employees and cover-ups by church leaders, and investigations of such claims in multiple jurisdictions.

Citing Ezzati as a suspect in July has proved particularly painful for church authorities and made his public appearances fraught amid protests.

In July, he denied any wrongdoing, adding in a statement: “I reiterate my commitment and the commitment of Santiago’s church to the victims. I have the conviction that I never covered up or obstructed justice and as a citizen will fulfil my duty to contribute all the information that may help clarify the facts.”

Ezzati attended a pre-arranged meeting with prosecutor Emiliano Arias in the city of Rancagua, 50 miles (80km) south of Santiago, on Wednesday morning. The cardinal stayed just over an hour and left smiling but making no comment to reporters outside. 

His lawyer, Hugo Rivera, told journalists they would seek dismissal of the charges in a court hearing, a date for which has not yet been set.

“We are not dodging this,” he said. “For now the cardinal will not make any declaration until we discuss the petition to dismiss (the charges) with the prosecutors’ office.

“We will discuss everything in public, in court, because we have nothing to hide.”

Arias told reporters after his meeting with Ezzati that the cardinal’s decision not to submit to questioning brought “no adverse legal consequences.”

“It is a defence option and a legal right,” he said. “We will continue to take other statements and to investigate and if necessary we will absolutely summon him again.”

He confirmed that the cardinal had been told of the charges he was facing but they would not yet be revealed in public.

(This version of the story corrects paragraphs 1 and 6 to Wednesday instead of Tuesday.)

(Reporting by Natalia Ramos and Fabian Cambero; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Bill Trott)

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