Mexico Begins to Suspect Men of Cloth of Covering up Sex Abuse

By Laurence Iliff
Dallas Morning News
October 6, 2006

Mexico City – The pedophile priest scandals that roiled the Roman Catholic Church in Dallas, Boston and Los Angeles were seen in Mexico as mostly a U.S. problem, but that's rapidly changing as parish priests and even a cardinal face new legal battles, analysts and victims' advocates say.

A lawsuit unveiled last month in Los Angeles accused Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the highest-ranking church official in Mexico, of covering up abuse in Mexico and the U.S. Since then, a priest in Puebla state has been arrested, another in Guanajuato has been sentenced to prison, and a third in Jalisco has drawn fire because of his past prison term for molesting a child.

Cardinal Rivera, a past papal candidate, has denied any wrongdoing by himself or the church. "I have always condemned these terrible acts," he said in a prepared statement.

But analysts expect a potential avalanche of new abuse cases – and the gradual end to a long tradition in which Catholic priests have enjoyed an informal immunity from prosecution. U.S. activists have identified 45 priests in Mexico who fled the U.S. after abuse allegations, including some from Texas.

"The Norberto Rivera scandal comes at a very favorable moment to show the complicity of the Catholic Church, including on an international level," said Bernardo Barranco, head of the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico, a research organization. "The image people have of priests is changing, and their immunity is disappearing."

The Mexican Bishops Conference said the church does not tolerate sexual abuse.

"We express our pain and solidarity with the victims of all types of sexual abuse, and we condemn pedophile acts by any human being," the conference said in a prepared statement.

A Chicago-based advocacy group for church abuse victims, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, opened a chapter in the Mexican capital this year to raise awareness of the problem in one of the most devout Catholic nations.

Ninety percent of Mexicans identified themselves as Catholics in the 2000 census. With more than 100 million people, Mexico has more Catholics than any country except Brazil.

Mexico also has all the characteristics that make it easy for abusive priests to go unpunished, said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP.

"All of the factors that kept abuse and cover-ups under wraps in the United States are present in spades in Mexico: timid law enforcement, frightened victims, tremendous deference towards church authorities, shame [and] a disparity in wealth," Mr. Clohessy said.

LA lawsuit

The Los Angeles lawsuit was filed by Joaquín Aguilar, now 25, who alleges that he was abused in Mexico a dozen years ago by a priest named Nicolás Aguilar (no relation), who could face prosecution in Los Angeles should he return. Mexican authorities are looking for the priest, especially in his native Puebla, and asking any victims to come forward.

The lawsuit charges that Cardinal Rivera conspired to protect Father Aguilar, accused of abusing boys in Mexico and Los Angeles. Also named as defendants are Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Father Aguilar.

The accused priest left a long trail of alleged abuse on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a 2004 Dallas Morning News project about the international flight of priests accused of sexual misconduct. The newspaper identified more than 200 cases of runaway priests, including ones in which top church officials helped clergymen evade law enforcement authorities.

Contacted by a reporter for The News before publication of the project, Father Aguilar denied the abuse allegations.

"God knows," he said in Puebla, "that this is all just a slander to destroy me."

Father Aguilar was accused of abusing numerous boys in Los Angeles in the 1980s, after he had been transferred there from Tehuacán, Puebla, where Cardinal Rivera was bishop at the time. When the accusations in Los Angeles surfaced, Father Aguilar fled to Mexico – where he again served under Cardinal Rivera for a time and allegedly abused more boys.

The accusations against Cardinal Rivera are false, said a spokesman for the Mexico City archdiocese, Hugo Valdemar, and the church is considering a countersuit for defamation.

"It's a very serious charge; it's slander," Mr. Valdemar said during a news conference. "The United States has no civil jurisdiction. It can't judge a [Mexican] citizen. Things are not how they are being portrayed. They can't come here and do whatever they want.

"It seems their goal is not punishment for the criminal and justice for the victim but rather economic gain," Mr. Valdemar said.

One of Mr. Aguilar's lawyers, Jeff Anderson, denied that.

"I have devoted my life to this issue, but I've never had an opportunity to address the Mexican problem," he said. "I've worried about it, I've agonized about it but never could do anything until now, until this case."

The legal argument, Mr. Anderson said, is similar to that used against a company selling a knowingly faulty product. Whether that company is domestic or foreign, a victim can seek damages in U.S. courts.

Mexico, which has a different system of justice, does not allow the same type of damages as U.S. courts, nor does it have jury trials.

Gaining attention

The lawsuit has focused media attention on the issue of pedophile priests, which previously has generated little coverage in Mexico.

There was even a small protest outside the Metropolitan Cathedral, where Cardinal Rivera conducts Mass, in which dolls covered in fake blood below the waist were used to portray abused children.

The latest accusations include the following cases:

  • A still-practicing priest in Puebla state was arrested over the weekend on suspicion of sexually assaulting a boy in 1999. The Rev. Rafael Sánchez Pérez had an arrest warrant issued against him on charges of raping the boy when he was 9, according to Puebla authorities.

  • In León, Guanajuato, the Rev. José Luis de María y Campos López was sentenced last month to six years in prison for abusing three altar boys between the ages of 10 and 14. León Bishop José Guadalupe Martín Rábago, who is also head of the Mexican Bishops Conference, accused the boys of lying.

  • The Mexico City newspaper Reforma reported that a priest in Jalisco state, the Rev. Alejandro Cervantes Gallardo, was sent to work in the town of Matancillas after serving two years in prison for child abuse in neighboring Aguascalientes state. The newspaper quoted Bishop Ramón Godínez as saying the priest had been rehabilitated. In a telephone interview, a church official in Mantancillas said Father Cervantes was no longer working there.

  • The newspaper Express in Nayarit state said a police report was filed this week against The Rev. Nicolás Covarrubias accusing him of fondling an 11-year-old boy who helped the priest with church chores.

    Although the Mexican church remains a pillar of society, it is now undergoing a level of public scrutiny that has never existed since the Spanish brought Christianity here more than 500 years ago, analysts said.

    "Little by little, you see greater consciousness regarding this issue," said Roberto Blancarte, a church analyst who is head of sociology at El Colegio de Mexico, a university in Mexico City.

    "People feel as if they can demand more of the church, that they can demand that the law" be applied, Mr. Blancarte said. "There is a greater skepticism toward priests if not toward the church itself."

    And that is only likely to grow, as it did in the U.S., Mr. Blancarte said.

    "The statistics would suggest that the problem is the same, that there are not fewer pedophiles than there are in the United States," he said.



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