Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church of Argentina: in the last 20 years, there's been at least 63 claims

Pope Francis prays in St. Mary´s Cathedral, in Dublin
Pope Francis prays in St. Mary´s Cathedral, in Dublin Fuente: Reuters - Crédito: Archivo
Fernando Massa
Nicolás Cassese
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2 de junio de 2019  • 00:09

For many years, Pablo Huck would leave the radio on beneath his pillow all through the night. It was one of the tricks he used if he wanted to get some sleep, but not the only one. He would also turn to alcohol to smother the thoughts of rage and destruction that haunted him day and night. Between 1993 and 1994, when he was 14 years old, Pablo was altar boy at Santa Rosa de Lima Church in Villaguay, province of Entre Rios, where a priest called Marcelino Moya abused him in his bedroom. "It's a deadly blow to your innocence.", says Pablo, now 40. Finally, on 5 April, after a long legal and personal fight, an Argentinian court convicted Moya to 17 years in jail.

Now, the Catholic bishops of Argentina and the rest of the world have on top of their desks the new Vatican protocol with guidelines on how to proceed in cases like Moya's, a historical initiative by Pope Francis aimed at coping with the sexual abuse crisis that has become the biggest challenge of his papacy. According to this new protocol, now the cover-up amounts to the abuse itself.

Dozens of similar cases were revealed in Argentina in the last two decades. However, the full extent of the issue is hard to determine. How many Moyas are there in Argentina? And more importantly, how many Pablos? Nobody knows. Unlike what happened in several countries, including the United States, Chile, Ireland, Australia and Germany, no formal investigation was conducted in Argentina, either by law enforcement agencies or the Church.

On the contrary, for years the Argentinian Church protected the priests and clergy members accused of sexual abuse. As the Church itself now admits, in many cases the cover-up mechanism included the relocation of priests: when they received a claim of sexual abuse, bishops would reassign priests and clerics to a different diocese, giving no public notice of the accusation behind the move. That is the result of the analysis of official documents and court and ecclesiastical sources consulted by LA NACIÓN.

The inquiry revealed that in the last 20 years the Argentinian Church received a total of 63 justified claims. In at least 19 of those cases, the accused clergymen were reassigned, and 5 of them were denounced in more than one location.

"Relocation [of accused priests] was a common practice, not only here but everywhere. The same pattern was confirmed in countries that carried out in-depth inquiries, like Germany or the US", pointed out Sergio Buenanueva, bishop of San Francisco, Córdoba, and coordinator of the Pastoral Council for the Protection of Vulnerable Minors and Adults of the Argentinian Episcopal Conference, in an interview with LA NACIÓN. Buenanueva is the top official of the Argentinian Church in charge of dealing with the problem. "The abuse crisis is one of the most serious challenges of the Church had to face in recent times", admitted Buenanueva. And so did Pope Francis three months ago, when he called to "to change our mindset in order to fight the defensive-reactionary attitude of safeguarding the Church".

The list of 63 denounced clergymen includes 17 cases that have already been prosecuted and convicted, 22 that are still in court, and 24 that were not filed despite the consistent amount of evidence against the involved (four of these cases were filed but dismissed for different reasons.) In at least 23 of the cases, the Church itself pleaded guilty and sanctioned 12 of the priests involved with the loss of clerical state, the maximum penalty of the institution.

However, the number of unreported cases is much bigger. "I don't know if the number is higher, but surely it isn't lower", said Buenanueva when asked about the 63.

The research team of LA NACION worked in the case for more than a year, consulting court officials, lawyers, bishops, ecclesiastical and judiciary sources, advocate groups and journalistic archives. Victims and aggressors where also interviewed. Most of the aggressors consulted just pleaded their innocence and said no more. One of them accepted to answer via WhatsApp.

In every corner

The claims of abuse include situations that took place in seminaries, care homes, boarding schools, schools, camps and parishes. Most of the aggressors are priests or clergymen, but there are also claims against three nuns. The younger victim was 3 years old.

The priest Tulio Mattiussi, for instance, is accused of allegedly abusing of four children between 3 and 5 years old at Belen Kindergarten in San Pedro, Buenos Aires province. Néstor Monzón, former priest at María Madre de Dios parish in San Jerónimo de Reconquista, Santa Fé province, awaits his trial under charges of outrageous sexual abuse against two 3-year-olds.

After celebrating mass at San Lucas Evangelista parish in Nogoyá, Corrientes province, the priest Juan Diego Escobar Gaviria would invite some local kids to stay overnight in the living of his parish home. During the night, Escobar Gaviria would beam a flashlight at the kid of his choice and let him into his room, where he abused him, according to the verdict that sentenced the priest to 25 years in jail. The list is long, but the problem goes far beyond the dismay caused by each new revelation and point to structural flaws in the mechanisms of control of the institution.

The Próvolo

The case of Instituto Próvolo reveals conclusively the way this relocation policy worked. The institution has branches in cities like Mendoza, La Plata, and also Verona (Italy), and the investigators now analyze a network of priests that abused deaf-mute and vulnerable children. The case of Próvolo also sheds light on the usual characteristics involved in the abuse and cover-up system: the choice of helpless victims, in this case, mute children that could no report the abuse, and the attitude of ecclesiastic authorities that ignored the allegations.

Nicola Corradi, one of the priests accused in the Próvolo case, is now legally confined to his home and awaiting trial. The first allegations against Corradi where reported in the Verona branch of Instituto Próvolo, where he worked until 1969. "They would give you a choice, either you went home, or you were sent to the Americas", said Eligio Piccolo, another of the accused priests when recorded with a hidden camera by the Italian site Fanpage.it. Piccoli was confined to a life of prayer; Corradi, on the other hand, chose the boat and crossed the Atlantic.

According to court documents, Corradi arrived in Argentina on 31 January 1970 and worked until March 1997 at Próvolo's quarters in La, where he now faces charges of sexual abuse. In March 1997, Corradi was reassigned and put in charge of the recently open center of Instituto Próvolo in Mendoza City, where he is also under investigation for sexual abuse.

Using sign language, Daniel Sgardelis, the first victim of the Próvolo to present himself before justice in La Plata city, tells his story in a video he sent to LA NACION. "I arrived to Instituto Próvolo at the age of 6 and at the abuse started when I was 9", says Sgardelis with signs of her hands but also with the rest of his body, in an effort to communicate the hell he was put through. "Then I told my parents of the abuse. They were shocked and perplex. They called the school and asked for the priest [Corradi]. He told them that something was wrong with my head, that I was retarded. My father believed him in a blink, he wouldn't believe his own son! I felt anguished and frustrated. I felt so bad I tried to commit suicide in five occasions and by different means."

According to Alberto Bochetay, auxiliary archbishop of La Plata city and spokesman of the Church for the Próvolo case, "the priests arriving from abroad were received without asking many questions; nowadays, we ask for reports". Bochetay justifies the practice of relocation as part of the mindset of the society of the time. "In the 1950's, when you had a family problem, the problematic relative was sent to live away in the countryside. That's how it was solved, not only in the Church", argues the cleric.

Prosecutor Gustavo Stroppiana, in charge of investigating the Próvolo case in Mendoza City, accused the Church saying the relocations and reassignments were "systematic", as it results from the analysis of court files. He also casts doubt on the institution's willingness to shed light on the facts. "We had no collaboration from the Church during the investigation. The Vatican sent two envoys, we met, and we submitted a request for information, with no response", said the prosecutor.

Seven claims have been filed before the court of La Plata city, but the attorney's office believes there may be more victims. "All the victims know the names of many other that suffered the same kind of abuse, but most of them don't have the courage to report it. I'm sure the allegations we are analyzing are just the tip of the iceberg", said Cecilia Corfield, prosecutor in charge of the investigation in La Plata city.

The case of Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta -a priest close to the Pope, who appointed him advisor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See-, es very revealing of how the relocation system worked. Zanchetta is in the Vatican since July 2017, when he resigned as bishop of Orán, province of Salta. He explained his resignation was due to health reasons, but by then que was already under investigation for sexual abuse. During a recent interview with the Mexican network Televisa, Pope Francis denied the case of Zanchetta was being covered-up. "I submitted the case [Zanchetta's] to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where the trial is held", said the Pope.

Relocations such as Corradi's and Zanchetta's were a common practice within the Argentinian Church. According to Buenanueva, "In the Church there is an ill system that covered the cases or preferred that they remained in the dark, thus protecting the aggressor". The relocation policy was the pastoral procedure developed to cope with the allegations ob abuse, said Fernando Miguens, priest and theologist, professor at San Miguel Seminary and member of Grupo Jeremías.

Explanations

According to Miguens and Buenanueva, celibacy is one of the causes that could provide an explanation to sexual abuses in the Church. "Celibacy itself doesn't turn an adult into a sexual predator, but it is an important factor of risk", said Buenanueva.

Pope Francis has a different opinion. "Pedophilia is not the result of celibacy: more than 70% of pedophilia cases occur in family and neighborhood environments", he wrote in his book On Heaven and Earth, where he also states that he never received any claim for sexual abuse during his mandate as archbishop of Buenos Aires. "I think that the solution of relocating priests and clerics was firstly proposed in the United States. It is a nonsense because that way the priest carries with him the baggage of the problem."

There is a movement against long-lasting covering-up practices inside the Argentinian Church that in may cases clashes with the disagreement of some groups who oppose the opening up. Meanwhile, the institution tries to control the damages suffered after each new revelation and for the moment it has not taken a leading role in the investigations or revealed any information about the real dimension of the issue. But it makes some efforts to implement in the future a system of handling claims.

Last February, Pope Francis gathered the 114 episcopal conference presidents around the world in a Vatican summit aimed at fighting against abuses. The decree that came into force yesterday goes a step further: it establishes a protocol for claims and demands dioceses to introduce before June 2020 a system open to the public to access abuse reports. In other words, clerics are obliged for the first time to denounce sexual abuse and harassment cases immediately, as well as to inform previous cover-ups. It forms part of Pope's "zero-tolerance" politics, but it also faces critics from those who don't believe there is a real engagement from the Church to change its practices.

Although the Argentinian Church admits the gravity of the situation and says it is working on measures to address it, it doesn't have any records of abuse cases involving its members. "We couldn't make a record", says Buenanueva. "But I think we're heading towards that direction, as other episcopates have already done", he admitted. Consulted by LA NACIÓN, some dioceses decided to collaborate in the investigation, while others didn't answer the request.

Global Crisis

What happened in Argentina is not an isolated case. Sexual abuse is a global concern. The crisis came to light in 2002, when The Boston Globe published the Spotlight investigation about sexual abuses committed in the United States.

The Church's canonical process specifies that the bishop is in charge of the preliminary investigation. If he comes to the conclusion that the claim is truthful, he sends the case to the Vatican. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the body in charge of following the claim, all in silence, in accordance with its own procedures, and without ordinary Justice involvement. According to many of the victims who have gone through the process, the goal is to avoid a scandal capable of further damaging the institution.

The Church's decentralized organization is one of the factors blocking the investigations. Although there are some national coordination bodies, bishops are autonomous and depend directly on the Pope. And there are also the religious orders, who have an independent organizational chart. Setting aside these difficulties, the new Vatican recommendations state that apart from promoting secular justice use, bishops must accompany victims and encourage judicial investigations. But this doesn't always happen.

Pope Francis' stance was also brought into question. He was forced to apologize after backing Juan Barros, a Chilean bishop accused of covering-up priest Fernando Karadima's abuses, who was removed from the ministry. Italian victims at the Próvolo Institute sent certified letters to the Pope and they also hand-delivered him one saying that their abusers were still forming part of the Argentinian division of the institute. Francis was accused of doing nothing on the matter.

In Argentina and elsewhere, the own nature of the abuses makes it too hard to get to justice. As in many cases victims are minors, they tend to remain silent. They only denounce the attacks years later, when lawsuits have expired or when it becomes too difficult to collect evidence. The Argentinian law was modified in 2018 so that the expiration period should start only after the victim reaches the legal age.

The Church sought to avoid public awareness in many cases, and conspires to keep the secret at all costs. A leaked letter of the archbishopric of Mendoza was published last April. It provided evidence of the effort to "prevent lawsuits" in an investigation of abuses reportedly committed by two monks.

Silence is also bought through legal agreements. From 1989 to 1990, Sebastián Cuattromo, who was 13 at the time, was abused by Fernando Enrique Picciochi, a professor and a Marianist brother, in the Marianist School he attended in Caballito neighborhood. Cuattromo filed a civil demand against the school, and along with another victim he signed a compensation agreement. Part eight of the document settled a non-disclosure clause that Cuattromo would later take legal action on grounds of immorality.

The victim says that from June to August 2002 he turned to the headquarters of archbishopric of Buenos Aires to talk to its leader, Jorge Bergoglio. "I wanted to know their stance, if they endorsed or discredited [the Marianist school bid] to silence victims of sexual abuse", said Cuattromo. He said he was redirected to Mario Poli, then auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, and he had a series of meetings with him. Cuattromo said that Poli eventually told him that the Church backed the non-disclosure clause.

Consulted by LA NACIÓN, Marianist School administrators said that Picciochi left Mother Mary Company by the end of 1993, and that when the claim was filed, he was no longer Marianist and he didn't have any role in the schools of the congregation. Concerning the agreement, they said that Cuattromo's claims were taken as believable right from the beginning, and that their intention was "to protect the privacy of the people affected". LA NACIÓN contacted the Archbishopric of Buenos Aires to talk to Poli, only to receive the reply that "the cardinal doesn't give interviews".

Dynamics of silence

Many victims point that the dynamics of silence and cover-up of the institution not only goes against the possibility of eradicating sexual abuses, but has also caused them more suffering. "Silence was more harmful than the abuse itself", explained one of the victims.

Buenanueva agreed with the comment and said that the "utterly awful practice of relocating, hiding and silencing" responded to the ignorance prevailing in the Church about the harm caused by the sexual abuses and the silence that followed it. "We must take into account the fact that many of the victims committed suicide, and that's terrible", says Buenanueva.

"It's been many years of submission. I've suffered not only sexual abuse but also a lot of violence and manipulation, and it was hard to realize what was going on", said Yair Gyurkovits, a 23 year-old student. He sued priests Agustín Rosa Torino and Nicolás Parma in 2016 for sexual abuse when as a child he attended the Saint John Baptist Disciples of Jesus Institute in the province of Salta. Both clerics still have open cases in court.

Abusers usually manipulate their victims to achieve the silence that gives them impunity. "This is a secret between us and God", Rufino Varela says Finnlugh Mac Conastair, or Father Alfredo, as he was known, told him after abusing him in the room he occupied underneath the chapel of Cardinal Newman school, where Conastair was a priest. Before saying him goodbye, the priest gifted him with some candies he took from a jar sitting on the table.

If silence causes oppression, bringing the cases to light encourages victims to break the spiral of cover-ups. Many of the victims consulted said they decided to talk about their case because they had seen or heard a brave victim refer his case.

"What is important now is to pursue the fight -said Sgardelis, in his eloquent sign language. You must hear me or not, as you like, but this is the truth. Mi life has already been ruined, but I'm still alive to go on fighting to put an end to sexual abuse."

Mariana García, Alejandro Horvat and María Ayzaguer also contributed to this story

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