Chilean priest probed after 'stolen babies' scandal

A judge in Chile has barred a Catholic priest from leaving the country over claims he had pressured single women to give up their babies for adoption.

The ruling blocks a church recommendation that Father Gerardo Joannon, 77, go on retreat abroad.

He allegedly belonged to a network of clerics and doctors who gave the babies to married couples under the rule of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and '80s.

This was done to avoid the social stigma of unmarried motherhood.

If the women resisted, they were told that their children had died during birth.

'Fake funerals'

Father Joannon is a senior cleric at the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in the Chilean capital, Santiago.

Following the allegations, his archdiocese suspended him and launched its own internal investigation.

This week, it concluded that he was involved in two "irregular adoptions".

In both cases, the mothers were anaesthetised during labour and later told their babies had died.

In actual fact, the children had been given to other families, according to the investigation.

The church said Father Joannon knew they were alive but nevertheless conducted funeral masses for the children.

The church recommended he apologise to his victims and go to Madrid, Spain, "to initiate a process of psychological and spiritual accompaniment".

The case is being investigated by Chilean Judge Mario Carroza who ordered the cleric to stay in Chile for at least two months while a police investigation continues.