Bolivian Catholics unfazed by sex scandals as they gear up for massive festival

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Catholic devotees in Bolivia prepared for one of the country’s biggest religious celebrations this weekend at a time when the church in this Andean country has been rocked by an increasing number of sex abuse scandals.

The faithful who were gearing up for the Jesus of the Great Power festival Saturday insisted that cases of abuse that have come to light in recent weeks would not affect the folk-religious festival in La Paz, which fuses together Catholic and local Indigenous traditions.

Tens of thousands of people will descend on the capital Saturday wearing colorful garb to dance to the beat of thousands of musicians playing traditional Indigenous music in a demonstration of their faith.

What started out as a small celebration in the Great Power neighborhood a century ago now takes over much of the capital.

Leaders of the Catholic Church acknowledged this week that the church had been “deaf” to the suffering of victims of sexual abuse amid fallout from the case involving a late Spanish Jesuit priest, Alfonso Pedrajas.

According to a private diary accessed by the Spanish newspaper El País, Pedrajas allegedly abused dozens of minors in Catholic boarding schools in Bolivia in the 1970s and 1980s. He died of cancer in 2009.

“My faith remains intact because it is not with the clergy but with the higher power,” said Marco Villca, a resident of the Great Power neighborhood, which bustles with activity ahead of the lavish festival presided over by the city’s mayor.

The parish priest of the neighborhood church, Marcelo Ramírez, expressed confidence “that faith will not be lost due to these tragic things that have happened in the country.”

The church houses the representation of Jesus that is worshipped during the massive festival and serves as the starting point of the parade that will continue into Sunday morning.

Jordi Bertomeu, a Spanish Priest who is one of the Vatican’s top sex crimes investigators, visited Bolivia for a few days at least in part to deal with the fallout from the growing sex abuse scandals. He had previously led investigations into priest abuses in Chile.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation and has asked victims to come forward. Attorney General Wilfredo Chávez said last month that around 23 priests have been implicated in alleged pedophilia cases.

Isolated protests at Catholic schools around the country have led parents of students there to complain of a hostile environment for their children. Catholic schools make up 19% of the country’s educational institutions, according to Bolivia's Catholic Church.

Although evangelical Protestant churches have made big inroads in Bolivia, and much of Latin America, a majority of Bolivians still claim to profess the Catholic faith.

“My faith is stronger than ever… crimes are committed by individuals,” said Marquin Silva as he prepared to honor Jesus of the Great Power.

Nearby, Angélica Álvarez, who was also getting an early start to celebrations also characterized the scandals as the work of a few.

“There are people who claim to be Catholic and sometimes become corrupt,” she said, adding that for those preparing for the festival, "everything is faith.”


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