POLICE on Wednesday seized church files in raids in Santiago and Rancagua, as the Catholic Church scrambled to try to put a better face on a sex abuse scandal that has rocked Chile.
The surprise operations came as Maltese archbishop Charles Scicluna and fellow papal envoy Jordi Bertomeu are visiting for a second time to take witness statements from victims of sexual abuse in the church and provide instruction to Chilean dioceses to respond adequately to any new complaints.
Prosecutor Emiliano Arias confirmed two "landmark" raids and said he was pleased with how they went. Precisely because church officials long were not subject to civilian authority in Chile, this marked a dramatic shift.
"This is not an investigation against the Catholic church," Arias said, but rather an investigation of reports of sex abuse by members of the church who abused minors.
Several members of the church hierarchy, including former bishop Juan Barros, are accused by victims of ignoring and covering up years of child abuse by Chilean paedophile priest Fernando Karadima during the 1980s and 1990s.
Pope Francis appointed 61-year-old Barros as bishop of Osorno in 2015, when victims' allegations against him were already widely known.
The pontiff himself became mired in the scandal when, during a trip to Chile in January, he defended Barros, who was accused of covering up Karadima's wrongdoing.
Karadima was suspended for life by the Vatican over the allegations of child molestation, and Barros was one of three bishops whose resignations Francis accepted on Monday.
Scicluna and Bertomeu visited Chile in February to investigate the allegations and meet with victims. Their report to Rome noted the existence of a "culture of abuse" within the Chilean Church.
In a letter to Chileans released at the end of last month, the pontiff voiced "shame" that the Catholic Church failed "to listen and react in time" to the allegations of sexual abuse by Chilean clergy.