SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile's president announced measures Wednesday to combat child abuse, responding to a popular outcry over an increase in reports of such crimes in one of Latin America's most socially conservative countries.
The government already banned convicted pedophiles from working near children last month under a new law that also requires those convicted of sexually abusing minors or of child pornography to be registered in a database.
President Sebastian Pinera said Wednesday the database will be fully working starting in August. He also said Chile will toughen penalties on convicted pedophiles, increase the forensic institute budget by $1.6 million and create a children's ombudsman to protect their rights.
"With sadness and indignation we've heard serious reports in the past weeks of sex abuse by adults who had the responsibility to educate them, to protect them but who instead threatened against that which is most sacred in our children" Pinera said at a news conference.
Several teachers have recently been accused of sexually molesting children at day care centers and schools in affluent Santiago neighborhoods. Reports of sexual abuse of children under the age of 14 rose by 22 percent in the first half of the year, according to official estimates.
Pinera said reports of child sex abuse increased 20 percent last year to 21,176. "That means that almost 60 children in our country were abused each day, one every 20 minutes," he said.
To fight the trend, Pinera also announced stiffer punishments for those involved with distributing child pornography and urged lawmakers to review and fast-track about 100 bills stuck in Congress that could protect children against sexual abuse.
Under new measures, young sex abuse victims will need only to provide a video-recorded statement once so they can avoid the stress of repeatedly having to retell their painful episodes.
The government also plans to split the Sename National Office for Minors into two bodies, one that will focus on protecting vulnerable children while the other handles rehabilitation of teenagers who run into trouble with the law.
"Chilean authorities, react against dramatic situations. It's reactive not preventive, so I'm not surprised that the government has reacted to this pedophilia boom," said Giorgio Agostini, a forensic psychologist who has worked on dozens of child sex abuse cases.
"We didn't expect this announcement but it's very positive," Agostini said, adding that the next step will be to get more funds to treat children who have been sexually abused.
Chile remains strongly conservative in social matters and the Roman Catholic Church retains a firm influence over society.
But the church's influence has been weakened since 2010, when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile's most revered priests. They said the abuse by the Rev. Fernando Karadima began about 20 years ago when they were between 14 and 17 years old, in his residence at the Sacred Heart of Jesus church in a rich neighborhood of Santiago.
The Vatican sanctioned Karadima by ordering him to a life of "penitence and prayer." A Chilean judge later dismissed a criminal case because the statute of limitations had expired, but she determined the abuse allegations were truthful.
In the United States, Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University assistant football coach, was convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He awaits sentencing.
"The announcement of these high-profile cases – Sandusky in the U.S. and Karadima in Chile – have also helped Chileans to become more sensitive" to the problem of child sex abuse, Agostini said. "They caused a huge shock and raised concern among lawmakers to act and among people to denounce the abuse."
Pinera's popularity has been dragged down over the past year by large social protests demanding improvements in education, protection of the environment and a better distribution of wealth.
"Before, these marches were just political, but now there are all types: Some demand bathrooms in the subway, others the protection of children from predators," said Carlos Livacic Rojas, a sociologist at Santiago's Universidad San Sebastian.
"Today people are saying: Yes, we're connected and the economy is growing but there's abuse. In the past it would have stayed as pent up anger. Today there is real demand. It's a huge social change."
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: http//twitter.com/luisandreshenao