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Spotlight Report

Pope to visit with a troubled flock

By Marion Lloyd, Globe Correspondent, 7/31/2002

MEXICO CITY - It could have been a triumphant return to a nation that Pope John Paul II has painstakingly brought back into the fold.

A travel-weary pope arrived in Mexico yesterday after a stop in Guatemala, where he canonized the first Central American saint, and a visit last week to Canada, where he presided over World Youth Day activities. The centerpiece of his three-day Mexico visit is today's canonization of the Americas' first indigenous saint, the Aztec Indian Juan Diego.

But on his fifth trip to Mexico, the pope will find little to cheer about in the state of the country's Catholic Church. Ten years after the pontiff successfully lobbied for Mexico to reinstate diplomatic ties with the Vatican, the Mexican Church is dogged by scandal and battling charges that it has lost touch with the masses.

''The Catholic hierarchy is facing a very difficult moment,'' said Bernardo Barranco, director of the Center of Religious Studies in Mexico and a prominent church scholar.

Barranco said that while earlier papal visits centered on the relationship between church and state, the latest will highlight the divisions within the Catholic hierarchy. Divisive issues include accusations of sex abuse by priests - long suppressed in Mexico until the crisis in the United States forced them into the open - and allegations that members of the church have ties with drug traffickers. ''The only group under pressure here is the Catholic Church,'' Barranco added. ''It is divided and mired in scandal.''

The pope's Mexico visit is intended to send a twofold message to the country's 88 million Catholics: The church reveres Indians as worthy of sharing the altar of saints, and it will not forget those who have given their lives defending church power.

The pope is also scheduled to beatify two indigenous martyrs, Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles, from the southern state of Oaxaca. The men, who were charged with looking after the church in the town of San Francisco Cajones, were hung by their neighbors in 1700 for spying on behalf of Spanish Dominican friars.

But the impact of that message could be weakened by ongoing church scandals and controversy over the figure of Juan Diego, church scholars said. As officials in Rome were hammering out the details of the visit earlier this year, a dispute was raging in Mexico over whether the canonization should take place at all. Critics, including the former cardinal of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, where the sainthood ceremony is set to take place, have questioned whether Juan Diego even existed.

Church lore has it that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego on a hilltop outside Mexico City in 1531, 10 years after the Spanish conquest. The purported apparition of the Virgin Mary was a catalyst in the Spaniards' mission to convert millions of Indians to Roman Catholicism.

''The great historical question is the lack of witnesses to the apparition,'' said Xavier Noguez, a church scholar at the Colegio Mexiquense in Mexico State and the author of a book challenging the existence of Juan Diego. ''I think in general that the church is confronting serious problems and it's looking for solutions. They opted for the solution of Juan Diego, despite the controversy, which is a very basic one.''

Those behind the sainthood campaign have produced two pieces of evidence they say date from the 16th century: a parchment painting depicting the Virgin appearing to Juan Diego, and a narrative in the Aztecs's Nahuatl language, which they say uses witness accounts to tell the story of the apparition. Scholars differ, however, on the actual dates of the documents.

They also disagree on who Juan Diego was. While tradition has long depicted him as a humble peasant, the church recently revised its theory to say that he was a member of the Aztec aristocracy. The switch angered many in Mexico, who argued that it was insensitive to the majority of the population who are poor.

Anger has also flared over allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests. While the scandal in the United States has captured the world's attention, the Mexican church has been forced to address similar accusations.

The most prominent case involves the founder of the influential Legion of Christ, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, who is accused of sexually abusing several priests in the 1950s. Critics accuse the pope of protecting Maciel, whose order has priests working in 20 countries. But they also note that no priest has ever been tried for sex abuse charges in Mexico.

In April, however, the conservative archbishop of Mexico, Norberto Rivera, surprised Mexicans by acknowledging abuse by priests and saying that ''nobody should be above the law.''

His remarks were seen as damage control after another prominent bishop, Sergio Obeso, sparked public outrage by declaring that ''dirty laundry is best washed at home.''

The following month, church leaders made headlines again after they sought to revive the investigation into the 1993 killing of Juan Jose Posadas Ocampo, the former bishop of Guadalajara. They questioned the official version that Posadas was mistakenly killed in a shootout between rival drug gangs.

Meanwhile, former attorney general Jorge Carpizo released a book in May in which he suggests Posadas may have been killed because of his alleged ties to the Tijuana drug cartel, the group blamed for the murder.

Also clouding the pope's visit is his uneasy relationship with President Vicente Fox.

A devout Catholic, Fox raised hopes within the church that he would boost its power in Mexico after he took office in December 2000. But attempts by members of his conservative National Action Party to restrict abortion and further other church causes were met with public outrage.

Fox's marriage last year to Marta Sahagun, his former spokeswoman, has also caused tensions. Sahagun is divorced and her marriage was never annulled by the church, and the pope has made clear that he does not consider her union with Fox to be legitimate. When the couple visited Rome last fall, the pontiff snubbed Sahagun, refusing her a public audience.

''In the strictest terms, they live in sin. The question is, will the pope continue to snub her while he's here in Mexico,'' said Soledad Loaeza, a specialist in church politics at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. ''I imagine that for the Vatican, Mexico is a key country. It doesn't behoove them to create conflicts.''

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 7/31/2002.
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