Abuse scandals multiply in pope’s backyard of Latin America

Rome — When the Catholic Church in the United States, Australia, and Ireland was hit by sexual abuse scandals during the first decade of the new millennium, many in the global south looked on with dismay, describing it as “an Anglo-Saxon obsession” and a media-driven campaign to discredit the Church.

Today, it’s far more difficult to deny the widespread scope of the problem, which affects not only the Church but society: According to the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., approximately 1 in 6 American boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.

A 2014 report from the United Nations estimated that globally, 1 in 10 women are abused before they reach their 20s.

New developments in Pope Francis’ own backyard in Latin America offer additional confirmation of the global nature of the challenge, and also appear to show that in many places, media exposure leads to the Church cleaning house.

In Uruguay, a country with a population of just 3.3 million, the local church recently received 20 allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors, something which the Archbishop of Montevideo, Cardinal Daniel Sturla, defined as a “human tragedy.”

The alleged survivors came forward after church authorities opened a phone line for people to do so.

The line was opened last month after a general assembly of Uruguay’s bishops, and was motivated in a large part by media buzz generated by local release of the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” which portrayed an investigation by the Boston Globe in 2002 into clerical abuse cover-ups.

According to Sturla, when the allegations came out they “hit the Church,” but today he says the institution is “ready to act,” knowing how to proceed after learning from experiences in other places.

Bishop Milton Troccoli, auxiliary of Montevideo, said on April that these cases “cause shame and a very strong pain,” adding that the Church would apply a policy of “zero tolerance,” as “Pope Francis has indicated.”

Toccoli asked for forgiveness, saying “we feel sorrow and shame because being people who’ve promised to serve God and their brothers, [they] committed these abhorrent acts.”

Yet the Uruguayan bishops, as many others in developing countries, have been late in implementing strong anti-abuse guidelines. Pope Benedict XVI requested that bishops’ conferences around the world do so in 2002, before his election when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and heading the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Uruguay’s bishops complied only four years ago, and they were among the first in the region to do so.

In Argentina and Paraguay, the bishops only established their own guidelines last year, and many other Latin American conferences still haven’t done so.

As in Uruguay, the church in Paraguay has been in the spotlight as of late for mishandling accusations of abuse. In late February a local newspaper, La Nacion, began to publish what they said would be a series of articles on five pedophile priests, all from Argentina.

The series began with the life of Father Carlos Ibáñez, who fled Argentina in 1992 accused of paying at least ten minors to have sex with him in the city of Bell Ville, in Cordoba.

As soon as the allegations against him arose, the local bishop suspended him back in the early 1990s, but he fled to Paraguay. Twice the Argentine justice system sent out a request for the priest to be sent back to the country to be judged, but it never happened.

Until recently Ibáñez was still in active ministry, something the bishops of Paraguay said was possible because he had presented fake ecclesiastical documents.

The archbishop of Asunción, Monsignor Edmundo Valenzuela, held a press conference before the newspaper series appeared, saying the local Church had known nothing about the charges against Ibáñez, and that during the more than 15 years he worked in Paraguay no accusations were lodged against him.

Those claims came despite the fact that in 1995, Ibáñez was captured by Interpol and spent several months in prison.

Two months after the scandal broke, Valenzuela, who’s also the president of the Paraguayan bishops conferece, apologized for not acting more “rigorously.”

“We apologize because we are too gullible,” he said in a press conference. “In Paraguay, we trust too much in people, even more so when they’re foreigners.”

The other four cases were never published by the newspaper because, according to Aldo Benitez, the journalist who headed the investigation, the papal representative in the country, Italian Archbishop Eliseo Ariotti, pressured the owner to suspend publication.

Ariotti denied any censorship, saying he’d only suggested that “it wasn’t appropriate” to run the other reports. In later declarations to another local newspaper, he praised the work done by the journalists to bring these cases to light.

Ariotti also said back in April that two other priests, Gustavo Ovelar and Francisco Bareiro, members of the Oblates order, had been asked to request laicization from the Vatican, after accusations of sexual abuse surfaced.

If they didn’t comply, Ariotti said, Pope Francis would impose laicization on them involuntarily. He also said the two priests are being tried by the local justice system, something the Church supports.

Paraguay’s military bishop, Adalberto Martínez Flores, said on April 29 that as long as the journalist’s research has the proper documentation, it should be made public.

Amid the buzz generated by the Ibanez case, Valenzuela reported allegations against yet another Paraguayan priest, Father Gumercindo Caputo Segovia, to the country’s Attorney General’s Office.

Caputo held several positions in the local church, even representing the Paraguayan clergy at the last meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference that took place in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007.

According to documents presented by Valenzuela, an ecclesiastical investigation into allegations against Caputo are credible enough to be presented to criminal prosecutors. The accused priest has been removed from active ministry.