© unknownAccused pedophile Claudio Spiniak
SANTIAGO, Chile - For Chile's right wing, it has become the scandal that refuses to go away. Though the "Caso Claudio Spiniak" began as a squalid sexual matter, it has been transformed into a political issue that has divided supporters of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and pitted them against an increasingly combative news media.

The scandal has been agitating Chile since late last year, when María Pía Guzmán, a conservative member of Congress, denounced what she described as a prostitution and child pornography ring and accused Mr. Spiniak, the nouveau riche owner of a string of health clubs, of leading it. She said that some of her own political allies were involved.

"There is evidence that within the intimate circle of Spiniak's network, there are politicians," she said, citing accounts that she said she had heard at a shelter for sexually abused youths.

In the latest round of accusations, made public in July, people identified as procurers for the ring have implicated as clients the mayor of a large city and a Roman Catholic bishop renowned for his opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship. Both men have denied any involvement in the sex ring, but in a poll taken early this year, three-quarters of those surveyed said they believed that politicians were involved.

Mr. Spiniak, through his lawyer, has denied that he headed such a ring.

A total of 18 criminal investigations are under way, with at least a half dozen more expected to be opened soon. Last month, the investigative judge in charge of the case, Sergio Muñoz, ruled that there were sufficient grounds to move ahead with the inquiries and formal indictments of Mr. Spiniak and others the judge deemed to be members of an "illicit association."

The initial result of the charges, though, was to create a rift between the main parties on the right. Ms. Guzmán belongs to National Renovation, but her accusations were mainly aimed at the Independent Democratic Union, known as UDI, which is closely linked to the most conservative elements of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile and to remnants of the Pinochet dictatorship.

With Joaquín Lavín, now the mayor of Santiago, as its candidate, the UDI lost the last presidential election, in 1999, by a whisker to a Socialist-led coalition. But with the next election scheduled for 2005 and the Spiniak case dragging on, the Independent Democrats and their main leader, Pablo Longueira, appear to have lost momentum and support.

"Longueira was in a strong position before all of this, but the Spiniak case has knocked him and his party out of the game," said Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt Letelier, a historian and the author of "Chilean History in the 20th Century." As a result, he added, "Longueira has had to spend 25 hours a day defending UDI from the gravest of accusations."

Mr. Longueira has denounced the accusations against party members as a "political montage." But he weakened his case and drew popular scorn by saying he had reached that conclusion as the result of prayer sessions in which he was communicating with the spirit of the founder of the party, his friend Jaime Guzmán, who was assassinated by anti-Pinochet guerrillas in 1991 and is no relation to Ms. Guzmán.

"I know that they are mocking and laughing," Mr. Longueira said of the reaction to his remarks. In fact, Sebastián Piñera, leader of Ms. Guzmán's party had joked that "the only thing lacking here is Donald Duck."

But "in the UDI, this happens all the time," Mr. Longueira added. "Many times we make decisions thinking of what Jaime would have done."

The case has also aided the government by robbing headlines from a corruption scandal that had been sapping its popularity and had implicated close associates of President Ricardo Lagos. But the military and the Roman Catholic Church have benefited too, because the Spiniak case has shifted public attention away from separate investigations of torture during the Pinochet dictatorship and a pedophilia scandal involving priests.

Mr. Jocelyn-Holt contends that the news media's focus on Mr. Spiniak reflects "a combination of homophobia and anti-Semitism," referring to the fact that Mr. Spiniak is Jewish and bisexual.

"He is the bête noire par excellence," Mr. Jocelyn-Holt said, and has become "a sort of scapegoat or lightning rod" for various forms of social and sexual resentment.

Indeed, the case took an even more peculiar turn after a leading television network broadcast a report in which the owner of a gay bathhouse identified the investigative judge originally appointed to the case, Daniel Calvo, as one of his clients. With a camera running, he made a telephone call to the judge and got him to admit to "living in a glass house."

But Judge Calvo refused to recuse himself from the case, saying, "I have done nothing that could compromise the investigation that has been entrusted to me."

The Supreme Court ruled otherwise, though, dismissing him from the case in order to "safeguard the proper advance of administration of justice" and suspending him from his duties for four months for "improper behavior."

The television network is now facing criminal charges of violating a law forbidding the taping of interviews without the permission of those involved. A second network, which broadcast an interview with a 20-year-old woman who said members of the ring had sexually abused her, is now being sued by a prominent right-wing senator who felt her description of her abusers impugned his honor, even though he was not named.

In addition, Congress has given preliminary approval to a bill that would severely restrict the ability of news organizations to report on similar cases in the future. The legislation would, legal experts say, effectively put the sexual conduct of any public figure, including politicians, beyond scrutiny by making news coverage an "abuse" of their right to privacy.

"This is an attempt to inhibit freedom of the press, promoted by political sectors on both the right and left that feel their personal interests are threatened," said Carlos Peña González, dean of the law school at Diego Portales University here. "If this same standard were to be applied elsewhere, it would have prohibited any discussion of the Profumo or Clinton cases and blocked the unmasking of pederast rings in Belgium and England."

Though Chile has the most open and dynamic economy in Latin America, it is the most socially conservative country in the region. Divorce was legalized only this year, for example, and abortion remains illegal.

Some social commentators argue that the Spiniak case embodies that contradiction. As they see it, Chile's moneyed elite wants to enjoy the fruits of a modern economy without the inconvenience of a newly emerging gossipy, tabloid press that has forced traditional news outlets, owned or controlled by members of that elite, to become more aggressive themselves.

"The traditional relationship is changing as a result of the battle for ratings, and the press is becoming more inquisitive about the elite," Mr. Peña said. "The incestuous alliance between the press and the powerful is being broken."