The School Where the Silence Broke
Criminal accusations reach the Bishop of Lomas de Zamora for past episodes of sex abuse at a Catholic school in Turdera
By Mariana Carbajal
May 19, 2013
[Translated into English by BishopAccountability.org. Click below to see original article in Spanish.]
A book written by a former student at Instituto Vicente Pallotti reveals a history of abuses committed during decades at the school. Last Friday, a former director of the school, whose son studied there and was the victim of a teacher, denounced the abuses to the Office of the Bishop. The following are the first-hand accounts.
“In all honesty, I’d like for the book you’re writing to give first and last names, not merely indirect references, because I don’t want any of these corrupt individuals to hide in anonymity. We must take a legal reckoning so they don’t tear our assholes again.”
So begins the third chapter of “The Angel’s Hunt,” by Sebastián Di Silvestro, a book containing the heart-wrenching accounts of former students – who today are adults over 30 years of age -- at a very prestigious Catholic high school in the southern metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. The accounts, told in the first person, reveal situations of sexual and psychological abuse in and around the educational establishment.
A priest who was also rector, [along with three others, including] the head of pastoral theology, the chief of preceptors and computer teacher, and a history teacher are identified as the perpetrators of different types of abuse, from inappropriate touching to attempted rape. Most of the victims were minors at the time, including one who had already graduated. The alleged abused occurred in the decades of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. But the incidents were never reported because [the victims] were ashamed to talk about it, feared backlash, and because their words weren’t believed to be truthful.
On Friday, the Bishop of Lomas de Zamora, Jorge Rubén Lugones, received a copy of the book. The author, Di Silvestro, agreed to not disclose the name of the school where the perpetrators worked. But a former director and one-time student at the school, Carlos Zermoglio, revealed to Monsignor Lugones that the school in question is Instituto Vicente Pallotti, in Turdera [a district of Buenos Aires], and gave him a who’s who in the book during a behind-closed-doors meeting that took place at the office of the bishop.
Zermoglio contacted Página/12 to discuss the matter, citing the very serious nature of the incidents related in the book, and because a few of those identified as perpetrators are still known to wander about the school, although they are no longer employed there. Zermoglio said that he told all of this to Monsignor Lugones.
“The bishop was very surprised and concerned by what we told him. By way of defending himself, he claimed limited authority to intervene at the school. Each order has certain autonomy, although all orders are ultimately subordinate to the hierarchical structure of the Church,” said Zermoglio after his meeting with the bishop, to which he was accompanied by an experienced pediatrician from a well-known family in Almirante Brown [a division of the Buenos Aires Province] who is highly involved in Catholic activism.
Zermoglio is 70 years old and grew up in the vicinity of the Pallottines Parish, located in Parque Chacabuco, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and where he took communion. It is the German branch of the congregation which is in charge of the Turdera school.
Zermoglio’s voice is one of the voices in the book. He speaks both as a former teacher at the school and as a father of one of the victims. He appears in the book under the pseudonym Cacho. In conversation with Página/12, he recalled learning of the episodes related in “The Angel’s Hunt” shortly after the author initiated his investigation and began placing the victims who provided testimony, since one of them -- whose abuse involved the school’s chief of pastoral theology -- is Pablo, one of Zermoglio’s six children (see related article: “Criminal Accusations Reach the Office of the Bishop”).
“The personal histories came to my attention in 2004. A friend from the school told me about a situation of abuse suffered by a young man who was a student there. From that point forward, we proceeded to pin down three other former students who had similar experiences involving other influential figures at the school. I did the investigative reporting and completed the manuscript, but had to put the project aside when my daughter got seriously ill. Years later I picked up where I’d left off, and published just this year,” said Di Silvestro, who is also a poet and has lived in Bariloche for 22 years, where he runs a small publishing house. The book went on sale in March at a newsstand in Turdera, located on the 100 block of Antártida Argentina Avenue, the same newsstand where Di Silvestro had once upon a time been employed as a newsboy. The book also went on sale at two bookstores in Turdera. But news of its publication primarily spread by word of mouth, after which the author began receiving emails from other former students who told him about additional instances of abuse that occurred at the same academic institution.
“My case is very old. It occurred in Pilolil during a mission. It was the summer of '76 … On that occasion it was four of us: Father Blas, Father Seryo, “el flaco”, and me. Basically, the mission involved distributing what we’d brought as well as administering sacraments. Many Masses were given, those who’d been born that year were baptized, and some marriages were celebrated. This particular mission brought us to a place in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighboring town was four miles away on mountain roads,” says Ronco in his account.
Pilolil is a village in the province of Neuquén. It was in this setting, while Ronco slept in a tent, that the priest-rector of the school (where Ronco was at the time in his final years of study), approached him and began to unzip his sleeping bag. “I was frozen in fear thinking something was out of whack, that I was imagining it. I thought to myself, ‘How could he be undressing me.’ I was wearing underwear and suddenly felt Seryo’s hand wrap tightly around my penis, his grip was very strong, like when one has an appetite and grabs hold of something. It was as though I’d been struck by lightning on the top of my head. How could this be happening ... The same man who for five years has taught you how to live, how to think, how to reflect. The same man who takes you by the hand and guides you through your religious studies. Who becomes your friend and companion. It’s extremely violent. It’s horrifying. All maps of your reality burn in hell. At that moment, I managed to turn over and pretend I was asleep. I coughed a little and lay silent. With my brief stir, the priest removed his hand and froze in place, before slowly sliding up the zipper [of my sleeping bag]. I was a wreck…”
Father Seryo was the rector of the school. In the days that followed, “I was distraught, vomiting and not eating. I returned home 10 kilograms lighter. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I was a mess. During the rest of the mission I had to continue sleeping next to Father Seryo. Fortunately, I could talk about it with ‘el flaco,’ who’s like a brother to me. He told us to keep quiet, because if we called foul and disrupted the order of things, then who knows where it would’ve ended ... I was at the school another year. It was a really tough year because I had no one to talk to about it. Only with ‘el flaco.’ He and I knew we were in a snake’s nest since no one in their right mind would do such a thing to a boy. [If they like to do that kind of thing with other guys, their personal life is none of my business.] But touching boys is forbidden.” Página/12 contacted Ronco, who verified his account in the book.
From what this newspaper could determine, the individuals identified in the book as perpetrators are no longer employed at the school. In the 1990s, Seryo left the school for Rome, then returned to Argentina, and since then occupied senior positions in the congregation. He went on to become a government official. A former student, who did not provide testimony for the book, told Página/12 that around 2003, shortly after graffiti was spotted near the school with a message of support for “the kids,” Zumbo resigned his positions as chief of preceptors and computer teacher. In the book, a pair of former students accused Zumbo of attempting to rape them years earlier.
Rubio -- the head of pastoral theology, and member of a prominent family of Adrogué, with close ties to the Opus Dei -- accused of inappropriately touching Zarmoglio’s son, also distanced himself from the school, in the early 2000s, when more grafitti was sprayed nearby linking him to pedophilia. He would however, keep ties with the group that organized camp trips for youth. For many years, Rubio was one of the organizers of a youth week that was held, and is still held, in September on the school premises, with the participation of male and female students from schools in the areas. The school is on the same block as the church, which is front of the plaza. For many years there was a youth center next to the church. The center is identified in the book as “The House of the Angel.” for the sculpture of an angel that adorns its entrance. A photo of that angel was taken for the cover illustration of “The Angel’s Hunt.” It was there, related Otto, another former student interviewed for the book, that Rubio and Zumbo “each had their own brothel.” Today, that building, which is located on Padre Bruno Street, is a school, Academia Pastorcitos de Fátima, where a variety of courses are taught. The angel still watches over the entrance.
“I met Zumbo on our first camping trip,” says in the book Crosty, another former student and Otto’s brother. He was 14 or 15 years old at the time. “He seemed like a great guy, though I had limited interaction with him … In December of ’92 … I started to spend more time with Zumbo. It was gradual. We prepared coffee, chatted a while … eventually I started to tell him about the problems I had at home … I don’t remember exactly how, but soon enough I was telling him that I wasn’t close with my father and that I wanted to grow out my hair. At one point I decided I wanted to get an earring, but Zumbo told me it was something that fags did. At that time, I looked up to him more than my father. The only father figure I talked to was Zumbo. All this led up to youth week in 1993. But I couldn’t sign up because my brother Otto was enrolled. My family didn’t have money and registration wasn’t cheap. To be able to participate, I spent time at the house of the angel. Jorge (a friend) slept there overnight in order to already be there when work began early in the morning. One day he invited me to stay overnight. I said ‘Right on.’ It was truly fantastic. You stayed the night there and woke up a few feet from where the groups met in the morning. Zumbo’s bedroom was the room at the end of the upstairs hallway. Since Jorge had invited me, I assumed we were going to sleep in the same room. But it turned out that Jorge went to sleep with Zumbo and I was sent to the room next door. I thought it was strange, since I figured he and I were going to sleep in the same room and party the night away. At any rate, I went to my room and laid down on my cot, which was against the wall on the other side of which was Zumbo’s room. Because I was exhausted, I promptly fell asleep. But at some point in the night I began to hear moans. I thought, ‘It can’t be. I must be imagining.’ Since the moans were disturbing my sleep, I covered my head with the pillow. I couldn’t believe it … The following weekend we were in the middle of the work day and Zumbo asked me if I wanted to stay the night again. I asked him if Jorge was staying, and since he said yes, I agreed. Later on, Jorge came and told me his mom wouldn’t let him … I figured I was going to sleep in the room where I’d slept the previous weekend. But when it came time to go to sleep, Zumbo said to me ‘Let’s go to my room.’ It was at that moment that the whole thing made me uncomfortable. Many times I wanted to leave and go home. But I stayed. It was about 11pm when we went to sleep. Zumbo locked his door. I lay down on a foldout mattress close to his bed and around midnight he started calling my name. I didn’t respond immediately. I remained silent … I don’t recall what he started talking about but he said to me, ‘Come. Come over here with me.’ The truth is that I didn’t understand anything, and, at that moment, I felt fear. He’d always had an aggressive disposition. He said fags and negros ought to be killed. He had a gun that he constantly fiddled with, saying, ‘Be careful who you mess with.’ … I went [to his bed] out of fear. In reaction to that fear. I don’t know why. I went over to his bed and Zumbo made me lie down next to him … When I felt his hand, a terrible chill shot through me. I thought, ‘It can’t be true that this is happening to me.’ Then he asked his infamous question. He said to me, ‘You know that between friends everything goes, don’t you? Do you consider yourself my friend? When I said I did, he put his hand beneath my underpants and started touching my butt, all the while saying to me, ‘Between friends everything goes, and what I’m going to do now is collect the favors you owe me.’ My mind went blank. I thought I was having a nightmare. I remember thinking, ‘I'm on the church’s side. This can’t be happening to me. On the church’s side, in the house of the angel, which is part of the church’. Then he took out his penis and began rubbing it against my butt…” Crosty goes on to say that Zumbo attempted to penetrate his anus. “Then I reacted. I said, ‘No! Enough! Enough! Enough! Enough!’ Although my mind had gone blank, I started to act. I acted as though he were causing me pain. I yelled, ‘Please stop! No more!’ Then Zumbo said to me, ‘Good. Be calm. Return to your bed and we’ll continue later on.’
Di Silvestro, the author of the book, poses for a photo. The camera flashes several times. He asks that the photo in which he’s staring straight at the camera be used for publication: “I want to look these men straight in the face, on behalf of their victims, and this is the photo I believe best expresses that intention.”