By Aislinn Laing
(Reuters) - Three men, who have accused Chilean priest Fernando Karadima of sexual abuse, asked a court in Santiago on Thursday to find the Roman Catholic Church in Chile responsible for "moral damages," claiming the Church had covered up abuse, and to pay them a total of 450 million pesos ($650,000).
James Hamilton, Jose Andres Murillo and Juan Carlos Cruz told a panel of judges at Chile's Court of Appeals that the Archbishopric of Santiago had covered-up sexual and psychological abuse of them and others.
This is the first civil case that has been brought against the Church in Chile related to allegations of sexual abuse. Canonical law expert Marcial Sanchez said last week that if the plaintiffs were to win damages it could lead to similar lawsuits by alleged victims.
Karadima, 88, was accused of sexually abusing boys in Santiago in the 1970s and 1980s but he was never charged by civil authorities because the statute of limitations on such crimes had expired.
Karadima, who has denied any wrongdoing, was found guilty of sexual abuse in a Vatican investigation in 2011, and last month was defrocked by Pope Francis.
Earlier in October, the pope defrocked the former archbishop emeritus of La Serena, Francisco José Cox Huneeus, 84, and Marco Antonio Órdenes Fernández, 53, who was archbishop emeritus of Iquique, following local and Vatican investigations.
Defrocking, officially called being "reduced to the lay state", is the harshest punishment the Church can inflict on a member of the clergy and such action has rarely been taken against bishops.
A civil case brought by Hamilton, Murillo and Cruz was rejected by a judge in Chile's lower court in March 2017, who said there was no proof of complicity of cover-up in the abuse by the archbishopric.
On Thursday, lawyers for Hamilton, Murillo and Cruz argued that the pope, through the Vatican investigation, had acknowledged that abuse had been covered up and noted that there had been many allegations of abuse and cover-up since the Vatican investigation.
One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Juan Pablo Hermosilla, noted in court on Thursday that the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, is under investigation over allegations that he helped cover up child abuse.
Nicholas Luco, a lawyer for the archbishopric, said the church had acknowledged "grave mistakes" and regretted failing to investigate abuse claims earlier, but added, "There is absolutely no evidence of a cover-up pact in the Archbishopric of Santiago."
Since the sexual abuse scandal around the Chilean Church surfaced earlier this year, a 2,300-page Vatican report has accused Chile’s bishops of “grave negligence” in investigating such allegations and said evidence of sex crimes had been destroyed. Pope Francis has accepted the resignations of seven of Chile's 34 bishops.
(Reporting by Aislinn Laing)