e-mail us
Chilean priest, a Pinochet supporter, draws fire

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Santiago, Chile

Church officials here are under growing pressure to remove Fr. Raul Hasbún, a controversial TV figure, from Chile’s Catholic University channel.

Hasbún is a Santiago diocesan priest and a strong supporter of former dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, under arrest in London following an extradition request by Spanish courts.

Hasbún, 65, has a high profile in Chile. For many years he has delivered a “spiritual commentary” during the Catholic University channel’s Friday evening news. He also conducts a regular feature on the Spanish-language edition of Mother Angelica’s EWTN.

His words have irritated many Chileans in recent months. At a military gathering in August, he referred to Chilean Socialists as “parasites” and “bloodsuckers.” Despite the Socialists’ “intrinsically unpatriotic” attitudes, he said, some people are willing to allow them to “guide the country’s destiny at the highest levels.” The front-runner in Chile’s upcoming presidential electoral race is Socialist Ricardo Lagos.

The Socialists immediately announced a lawsuit against the priest; they withdrew it in early September, however, calling instead for an apology.

The apology has not been forthcoming.

Coming at a moment when church authorities are attempting to promote a climate of national unity, Hasbún’s remarks provoked a vigorous response from church officials.

Santiago Archbishop Francisco Javier Errázuriz issued what amounted to a public reprimand, telling the press he was “deeply pained” by Hasbún’s expressions. “This is not the way we’d like a priest of the Santiago church to speak,” he added.

The priest’s remarks “have been damaging. They hamper our efforts to heal the wounds of the past,” declared Bishop Manuel Camilo Vial of San Felipe, general secretary of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference. Bishop Tomás González of Punta Arenas said that Hasbún’s words “have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus.”

Two Chilean bishops, Fernando Ariztía of Copiapó and Carlos Camus of Linares called for the priest’s ouster from the Catholic University TV channel. They revealed that several months ago a group of bishops approached Archbishop Errázuriz privately, requesting that Hasbún’s TV spot be canceled.

Earlier this year, Hasbún made several public statements regarded as offensive by human rights groups, going so far as to defend leaders of the notorious Colonia Dignidad in south central Chile. This closed German-speaking enclave is reported to have been a secret torture and execution center during the Pinochet years; it is currently under investigation by Chilean courts.

In May, Hasbún compared Jesus’ witness to that of the detained former dictator, prompting more than 4,000 Catholics to sign a letter calling for his removal from the TV channel and from the faculty of Santiago’s major seminary, where he teaches homiletics and moral theology.

Undeterred, Hasbún flew to London in July to baptize a Pinochet grandchild and offer “spiritual comfort” to the family. He spoke of the former dictator’s “great moral rectitude.”

Coming from Hasbún, none of these expressions surprises Chileans: the priest has long been an emblem of religious and political conservatism.

Hasbún played a highly visible role in opposition to the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-73). Appointed executive director of the Catholic University TV station in 1972, he was in control of programming at the time of the 1973 military coup, during which President Allende died. Immediately following the bloody takeover, an around-the-clock curfew was imposed; troops hunted down thousands of Chileans, and great numbers were jailed and tortured. Many were killed or exiled.

In addition to his current TV role, Hasbún does spots on several radio stations, writes in a variety of local newspapers and magazines, and is a regular speaker at military ceremonies and at events sponsored by Chile’s political right.

Whatever may be the outcome of the current controversy, it appears that Hasbún’s star is declining. Within the last year, the Catholic University channel has cut back his airtime, offering space to Fr. Rodrigo Tupper, Santiago’s vicar for youth ministry. Informed observers expect that after the dust of the latest controversies settles, church authorities will assign Hasbún to tasks that distance him from the media limelight.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999