SANTIAGO, Chile – Even as Pope Francis apologized for his failures in connection with Chile's most famous case of clerical sex abuse, the pope and that country's deeply discredited Catholic Church are under mounting pressure to address another, even bigger sex scandal.
The blooming scandal of the Marist Brothers, a congregation dedicated to education, has not yet drawn great attention worldwide — unlike allegations that a bishop covered up the crimes of a pedophile priest, Rev. Fernando Karadima.
Francis recently spent several days at his Vatican hotel in talks with three of Karadima's victims; this week he is meeting with all of Chile's bishops to address the crisis that has implicated several church leaders and religious orders.
In the Marist case, the accusations of abuse are many.
"It's a situation of systematic abuse where there are multiple abusers throughout time, within and outside the congregation," Juan Pablo Hermosilla, an attorney for some of the victims told The Associated Press. He said that there at least 20 cases of abuse, but that there could be more.
"It's an unprecedented situation," he said.
Marists are religious brothers, not priests; they operate in dozens of countries around the world. The scandal came to light last August, when the group revealed that at least 14 minors were abused from the 1970s until 2008 by Abel Perez, a brother who worked at two of the order's schools. Then it acknowledged that another Marist sexually abused five students.
The Marists opened a canonical investigation and launched legal action against Perez. But many Chileans were outraged when the order admitted that Perez had confessed in 2010 — seven years earlier.
Now, victims have filed a criminal complaint against three Catholic priests, a Capuchin brother and six Marists. In that complaint and in interviews, they have recounted numerous abusive encounters.
Jaime Concha said he was 12 years old when he was raped by Perez during a boy scout field trip in the 1970s. He said Perez, a trip chaperone, took him to a tent after he fell ill, and gave him herbal tea mixed with alcohol.
"When I woke up in the middle of the night, he was taking advantage of me," the 55-year-old physician told the AP. "He had already raped me." But he said Perez blamed the abuse on him, saying: "Don't worry, I've already asked God to forgive your sin."
Gonzalo Dezerega, 55, wept as he recounted how Perez raped him at the school's locker rooms and showers. He was 10.
Perez has declined to speak with the media. Despite the order's acknowledgment that he confessed, his lawyers continue to maintain his innocence.
The alleged abuses at the Alonso de Ercilla Institute in Chile often took place at the school's basement, in the rooms of the Marist Brothers who lived in a residence connected to the school, or at spiritual retreats and scout field trips.
Concha said that he was abused by other Marists, as well as by priests. Jorge Franco said he was 15 when he was abused by one priest while another watched.
Both Concha and Franco said the current principal of the school, Jesus Perez — who was then in charge of pastoral activities, including masses, communion and confessions — once dragged them to the school basement, forced them to take off their clothes and don a tunic while they waited to take a "vocational test" to determine whether they were suited to become Marist brothers.
Then, they said, he delivered them to the priests who abused them.
Jesus Perez rejected the accusations. "I deny it completely ...," he said. "I know the (former students), I was here, I worked here, but they can't accuse me of being complicit."
Hector Villena, a spokesman for the congregation in Chile, said the Marists are not commenting on the allegations.
But in an indication of just how broad the scandal is, the first priest the Marists appointed to conduct a preliminary investigation was removed after Chilean media reported he himself had been accused of sexual misdeeds.
The Chilean sex scandals have been a debacle for the pope. He visited the country in January, and before he boarded the papal plane to return to Rome, Francis said that until he saw proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up Karadima's sex crimes, accusations against Barros were "all calumny."
The pope's remarks drew shock from Chileans and immediate rebuke from victims and advocates worldwide, prompting him to later send the Vatican's sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to investigate Barros.
After receiving Scicluna's 2,300-page report, the pope backtracked and apologized for having discredited the victims. He invited Juan Carlos Cruz, a key whistleblower in the case, and two other abuse survivors for several days of private and group meetings.
Cruz said the pope told him: "I was part of the problem. I caused this, and I apologize to you."
Though originally tasked with investigating Barros, Scicluna also interviewed several of the Marist victims, a clear sign his mandate had expanded. In fact, Scicluna took testimony from victims of several other abusers and heard of cover-up and inaction by church leaders even against priests convicted of sex offenses by Chilean courts.
A Vatican statement issued Saturday, ahead of Francis' meeting with Chilean bishops, made clear that he had finally processed the victims' complaints: It accused the Chilean hierarchy of "grave omissions" in caring for victims and of having covered up for abusers.
The influence of the Catholic Church in Chile has eroded after the string of scandals. A recent survey by Latinobarometro, a respected regional polling firm, found that in 1995, an estimated 75 percent of Chileans were Catholic. That number plunged to 45 percent in 2017.
Chileans' disenchantment with the church has also affected their views of the pope. Latinobarometro found that Chile had a lower esteem for history's first Latin American pope than 18 other Central and South American countries. Even among Chilean Catholics, only 42 percent approve of the job Francis is doing, compared to a regional average of 68 percent.