South America Has Become a Safe Haven for the Catholic Church’s Alleged Child Molesters
By Will Carless
September 17, 2015
|Accused child sex abuser Father Jan Van Dael plays with the hair of a boy collecting a soup donation, in a slum outside Caucaia, Brazil.|
Jennifer’s memories were scattered and fleeting. They came suddenly, triggered by a smell or a glimpse of light dappled through stained glass. The aroma of freshly baked mince pies repulsed her nostrils. Scented candles, like the ones in the small San Antonio, Texas church she attended as an elementary school girl, made her gag with disgust.
Jennifer’s mother couldn’t understand these abrupt fits of revulsion, or the angry outbursts that accompanied them. For years, her daughter had been slipping into chaos, flunking classes, running with a bad crowd. The once happy-go-lucky child had changed beyond all recognition.
Then, one day, years after her life began unraveling, it all came pouring out.
“She finally came and told me that he had raped her,” the girl’s mother told GlobalPost. Therapy had dragged up Jennifer’s memories: a sudden blacking out, possibly from a drug she had been slipped, then dizzily regaining consciousness on a bed in the rectory. “I remember when I came to, it was just him and me and he was on top of me and I remember that stained-glass window and he did it in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” Jennifer told her mother.
Jennifer — who is identified only by her first name because she still suffers trauma from the alleged incident — is by no means the only parishioner to accuse Father Federico Fernandez Baeza of abuse.
Fernandez arrived in San Antonio in the early 1980s. By 1983, prosecutors had charged him with exposing himself to two young girls in a local swimming pool. A year later, he had begun ritually abusing and raping two young boys in his care, according to a 1988 lawsuit filed by a local family. The abuse continued for two years, the lawsuit claimed.
The priest was never convicted of a crime. Instead the church negotiated a large cash settlement, and Fernandez promptly relocated to Colombia, where he continued working for the Catholic Church. In May, GlobalPost traced him to the picturesque seaside city of Cartagena. He’s currently a senior administrator and priest at a prestigious Catholic university, enjoying all the privilege, respect and unfettered access to young people that comes with being a member of the clergy.
Fernandez is just one of scores of Catholic priests who have been accused of abusing children in the United States and Europe, but who have avoided accountability simply by moving to a less-developed country.
|Boats bob next to the tiny fishing village of Puerto Huarmey, Peru.|
Even as Pope Francis has touted reform of the Vatican’s safeguards against child abuse, GlobalPost has found that the Catholic Church has allowed allegedly abusive priests to slip off to parts of the world where they would face less scrutiny from prosecutors and the media.
In a yearlong investigation, we tracked down and confronted five such priests. All were able to continue working for the church despite serious accusations against them. When we found them, all but one continued to lead Mass, mostly in remote, poor communities in South America.
Some of these men faced criminal investigations, but went abroad without charges being brought against them. One of the priests admitted to GlobalPost that he had molested a 13-year-old boy, and acknowledged that he can never work again in the US. He continues to preach in a small Peruvian fishing village. Another is currently under investigation by authorities in Brazil for a string of alleged molestations, including accusations in the poor neighborhoods where for two decades he ran a home for street children — with the support of the Catholic Church.
GlobalPost interviewed one diocese leader in these communities, but was otherwise not granted interviews with local church officials. And despite protracted efforts and discussions with church press officers, neither the Vatican nor the chairman of a new papal commission set up specifically to tackle church child abuse would speak with us.
For advocates and attorneys who have studied abusive Catholic priests for decades, the flight of these fathers overseas represents just the latest chapter in a long story of deceit, collusion and church-sponsored impunity for child abusers.
“As developed countries find it tougher to keep predator priests on the job, bishops are increasingly moving them to the developing world where there’s less vigorous law enforcement, less independent media and a greater power differential between priests and parishioners,” said David Clohessy, national director and spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “This is massive, and my suspicion is that it’s becoming more and more pronounced.”
“I’m a pedophile, in the real sense”
|Father Jan Van Dael holds onto a strand of a boy's hair as he collects free soup. "Look at his hair!" the priest calls to reporters.|
The boy runs along the trash-strewn potholed dirt street, his long copper-colored hair flowing behind him. Father Jan Van Dael, 76, reaches out to touch his arm, moving close.
“He reminds me of a boy who was in my house in Rio de Janeiro,” Van Dael says, referring to the orphanage he used to run in the 1980s.
The boy wriggles free and lines up to fill his pot from the containers of soup that Van Dael and his volunteers have brought to this small slum just outside the rough-and-tumble city of Caucaia, in Brazil’s northeast.
Van Dael, an avuncular, slightly doddery Belgian priest, seems deeply affectionate toward pre-adolescent boys. He loves to take their photographs. He reaches for children he barely knows, like a father hungry for attention.
Back in the late 1980s, Van Dael moved from Europe to Brazil, first settling in Rio de Janeiro. After a falling out with the local diocese (Van Dael says church officials objected to his working with poor street children whom they deemed criminals), the Belgian was asked to leave, and ended up in windswept Caucaia, a few miles from the crime-ridden city of Fortaleza.
"It’s very difficult for a child to understand an act, a touch, that might have a sense of exploitation and abuse, and that is in fact abuse."
BRAZILIAN FEDERAL PROSECUTOR
Taking advantage of Brazil’s extraordinary exchange rates at the time, which greatly favored the US dollar and European currencies, the “gringo priest” set up a new orphanage for abandoned and troubled street kids.
He called it “Esperanca da Crianca,” or Children’s Hope.
But the home's whitewashed walls — which Van Dael hung with dozens of photographs he took of young boys — appear to have borne witness to plenty of misery, along with any hope.
According to Brazilian prosecutors, Van Dael is currently under investigation by both the Belgian and Brazilian federal authorities, an inquiry that adds to a litany of child abuse accusations against Van Dael on two continents.
Last year, a Dutch television station interviewed two men who claimed Van Dael fondled them at church and at a Catholic summer camp in Belgium in the early 1970s. A federal prosecutor in Fortaleza told the station that there had also been several complaints of sexual abuse against Van Dael over the last 10 years.
|Father Jan Van Dael shows off his collection of portraits — most of young boys — on the veranda outside his home. The building once housed orphans, but Van Dael closed that operation down two years ago.|
In 2011, two former interns at Van Dael’s orphanage told the Belgian media that children there said the priest had abused them. And the head of a local government child protection agency in Caucaia told GlobalPost he had received a complaint about Van Dael back in 2008. The complaint languished, the official said, because the agency didn’t have the staff or resources to investigate it.
Van Dael has been suspected of pedophilia for years. Meanwhile, his career as a priest has flourished in the Archdiocese of Fortaleza.
Everywhere he went, Father Jan was met with reverence and respect.
His services are in constant demand. He said he sometimes celebrates Mass six times a weekend in the poor neighborhoods of Caucaia. When we visited, Van Dael led services at two different churches and handed out soup to children, something he said he does every day.
Everywhere he went, Father Jan was met with reverence and respect.
In a lengthy interview, he told GlobalPost he has never been sexually attracted to children. He said all the accusations against him are lies, drummed up by abusive parents, envious competitors, or university students who don’t understand the world. He compared himself to Jesus Christ, saying he was a rebel, a trailblazer and a true humanitarian.
“Literally, pedophilia comes from the Greek, 'pidos' meaning child and 'philia' meaning friendship with children,” Van Dael said. “In the real sense of the word I’m a pedophile.”
The archbishop of Fortaleza, who has control over which priests celebrate Mass within the archdiocese, initially agreed to an interview. But after we confronted Van Dael about the accusations against him, the archbishop said he couldn’t meet with GlobalPost.
The Catholic Church has a long history of secrecy in matters related to sex abuse allegations, reaffirmed by a 2001 confidential apostolic letter written by Pope John Paul II.
The letter clarified that all cases of sexual abuse by priests were to be handled by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, an internal affairs unit of the Catholic Church, which was then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who became pope in 2005). The letter also reasserted that all such cases must be kept strictly confidential under the “pontifical secret,” a move that has been heavily criticized ever since.
A 2001 letter written by Pope John Paul II said that all cases of sexual abuse by priests were to be handled by an internal affairs unit of the Catholic Church, and the cases kept strictly confidential.
In August, Livia Maria de Sousa, a federal prosecutor in Fortaleza, told GlobalPost that her staff had interviewed three people who formerly lived in Van Dael’s orphanage, as part of an ongoing investigation against the priest. She said the interviews had uncovered no new evidence against Van Dael, and added that investigators were also scheduled to interview the priest in September.
De Sousa lamented that abusive priests too often come to Brazil in search of prey. She said investigating child sex abuse within the church can be frustratingly slow and difficult — especially when suspects are revered as moral icons, and victims are too young to understand sexual contact.
|Children play soccer outside the city of Caucaia, in northeastern Brazil.|
“Brazil is a country where Catholicism is very strong and present, and where the people really respect the church, priests, bishops and all religious authorities,” she said. “So it’s very difficult for a child to understand an act, a touch, that might have a sense of exploitation and abuse, and that is in fact abuse.”
Van Dael closed down Esperanca da Crianca a couple of years ago, when the Brazilian authorities changed their policies for housing troubled children. But he continues to come into daily contact with vulnerable children.
In doing so, Van Dael draws his legitimacy from the Archdiocese of Fortaleza and, ultimately, the Vatican. Despite years of accusations and investigations, Van Dael said he has never faced a formal investigation by the church.
Zero tolerance, double standard
Father Paul Madden is an admitted child molester.
In the 1970s, Madden, who was then a priest in the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, took a trip to Ireland with a 13-year-old boy in his parish. During that trip, according to a lawsuit filed by the victim in 2002, Madden “repeatedly molested and raped” the boy.
|Father Paul Madden offers communion to a congregant in Puerto Huarmey, Peru.|
An earlier lawsuit, in 1994, ended with a $50,000 payout from the diocese and an apology letter to the victim’s parents, signed by Madden.
“Since 1973 I have been plagued with remorse and guilt for my molestation of your son,” reads the letter. “There is no excuse for my actions and I assume responsibility for them as a humble penitent.”
In 2003 — soon after the victim’s second lawsuit was dismissed because too much time had passed — Madden joined the Diocese of Chimbote, Peru. In April, GlobalPost found him celebrating his weekly Mass in the tiny, scruffy fishing village of Puerto Huarmey.
Approached after the service, Madden again admitted the abuse, though he wouldn’t elaborate on what occurred.
“Something happened, I was drunk, and I had never drank before in my life, it was the first time ever, and I woke up in the middle of the night, and … yeah, well, something happened,” he told GlobalPost.
Madden expressed remorse for his actions, but said that, in keeping with church teachings, God has forgiven him for his sins.
“I feel quite confident in the mercy of God, and I feel quite confident that God forgives all sin,” he said. “If I’m guilty, I’m forgiven.”
Still, he’s under no illusions that he’s been pardoned in the eyes of the American public, or even the American Catholic Church. Asked if he could return to work as a priest in the US, Madden, who is originally from Ireland, was clear.
“I don’t think so, no, because of this ‘zero policy.’ And this was before — that’s not just from Pope Francis, this came out years before in the US.”
Madden was referring to a “zero tolerance” policy on child sex abuse that was approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002. The policy aimed to remove any and all priests who have abused children, no matter how long ago.
|The small fishing village of Puerto Huarmey, Peru, a few hours drive north of Lima. The church where Father Paul Madden celebrates mass is on the right.|
“When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry,” reads one of the rules approved by the Vatican after the conference.
Last year, Pope Francis ostensibly took the US church’s policy global when he wrote a letter to every Catholic bishop in the world stating that they must abide by the zero tolerance rules.
But victim advocates say the pope’s message was an exercise in public relations, and that meaningful change is still a long way off.
Anne Barrett-Doyle is a founder of Bishop-Accountability.org, which tracks abusive priests around the world. She said that despite the pope’s letter, it’s still entirely unclear what standards bishops worldwide are now being held to. She said the rules in the US, though far from perfect, remain much more stringent than church doctrine elsewhere.
“It’s a lie, it’s absolutely false that there’s anything approaching zero tolerance in the emerging abuse policies around the world,” Barrett-Doyle said.
In Peru, Madden’s church superior acknowledged that the new zero tolerance paradigm requires the diocese to act in this case.
|The church where Father Paul Madden celebrates Mass, in Puerto Huarmey, Peru. Father Madden admitted to molesting a 13-year-old boy, and told GlobalPost he could never again work in the US.|
Interviewed in the city of Chimbote, Vicar General Juan Roger Rodriguez Ruiz, the diocese' second-in-command, said that Bishop Angel Simon Piorno was shocked to learn from GlobalPost about Madden’s past, and would scrutinize the priest in light of the zero tolerance policy.
“Some may find it hard, even painful, that the bishop has to investigate a priest, but it has to be done,” Rodriguez said. He added that Madden would be suspended if necessary.
However, in mid-August a member of Madden’s parish confirmed to GlobalPost by phone that the priest continued to preach every Sunday. We attempted to confirm this with Rodriguez, but our email and phone calls went unreturned.
Disgraced in Minnesota, welcomed back to Ecuador
To find Father Francisco “Fredy” Montero, one has to negotiate a deadly, precipitous mountain pass — so high that wisps of cloud sweep past — searching for a village that locals describe vaguely as “very remote” and “out there somewhere in the tropics.”
The road, gouged in places by great landslides, weaves down from chilly highlands to the steamy, banana-stuffed interior of central Ecuador’s Bolivar province. Here, an hour’s drive from the nearest small town and several hours from the nearest big city, is the hamlet of Las Naves.
|The road to Las Naves snakes through unpaved mountain passes littered with rocks.|
On Google Maps, Las Naves appears as a ring of green jungle, with no streets, landmarks or homes. It’s wildly different from the broad avenues of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where not long ago Montero made a name for himself as a gregarious priest, church journalist, part-time radio DJ and accused child molester.
Montero, then in his mid-30s, had been a popular addition to the Archdiocese of Minneapolis.
A quick talker with an easy smile, he charmed the local Hispanic population, helped to found a Spanish-language church newspaper and installed himself as a fixture in his adopted homeland.
|Father Francisco “Fredy” Montero's mugshot.|
But five years after arriving in a Minnesota blizzard, Montero’s cheerful facade fell apart. In 2007, an official at the archdiocese reported to the Minneapolis Police Department that Montero had been accused of abusing a 4-year-old girl. Detectives arrested the young priest, seizing his computer and other possessions.
“Father Fredy,” as he was known to parishioners, was hardly the archetypal pious priest. For months, according to a police report, he had been sleeping with at least one adult churchgoer — a witness to the abuse — who later told police she and the priest would have sex on Montero’s desk on a daily basis.
The little girl, who is not being identified at the request of her mother, was interviewed by a forensic psychologist and by other experts with the Hennepin County Child Protection Services. They concluded Montero had, indeed, abused the girl. Later, when Montero appealed that finding, the agency upheld it, according to a diocese document obtained by GlobalPost.
Police investigators searched through Montero’s computer, looking for evidence of child pornography. But prosecutors eventually decided there simply wasn’t enough evidence to charge the priest with a crime. Almost immediately, Montero flew back to Ecuador.
Sgt. Darren Blauert, the Minneapolis detective who investigated Montero, said although there were no charges brought, something happened to the child that was “very inappropriate.” He expressed serious concern that Montero had been allowed to continue to work with children.
“There was enough that I would be very concerned that this person was continuing what he was doing,” Blauert said.
GlobalPost's trip to far-flung Guaranda, where Montero is now based, serves as a reminder of what a huge, sprawling institution the Catholic Church is, and how challenging it might seem to police priests who span the globe.
|The city of Guaranda, Ecuador, the capital of the mountainous Bolivar Province.|
But thanks to the internet, for many priests a background check is only a few clicks away.
Bishop-Accountability.org maintains a database of more than 6,400 clerics who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse in the United States. The database contains extensive information about Montero, Madden, Van Dael and many other priests who have avoided scrutiny by simply getting on a plane and flying to a new country.
Thanks to the internet, for many priests a background check is only a few clicks away.
In Montero’s case, there was no need to even double-check the priest’s background in those online records. Court documents show that the Minnesota accusations followed him to Ecuador.
A dossier sent from the Archdiocese of Minneapolis to Guaranda warned the South American diocese of Montero’s past. Archdiocese officials also reported the alleged abuse to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s internal investigators.
But Montero was apparently able to shrug off his past once he arrived back in his native Ecuador.
After a brief hiatus, during which he said he was employed as a journalist, Montero was placed in a succession of remote local parishes in the diocese of Guaranda, where he continued to celebrate Mass and interact extensively with young people. He eventually stopped working as a priest a couple of years ago — not because of the accusations against him or the potential harm he might inflict on children, but because he decided to run for mayor of Las Naves. The local bishop decided politics and priesthood weren’t a good mix, he said.
|One of the main streets of Guaranda, a city in central Ecuador and the home diocese of Father Montero.|
Bishop Angel Sanchez, who welcomed Montero back to Guaranda, now heads a different diocese in Ecuador. He said in a telephone interview that at the time Montero returned to Ecuador he was aware of the accusations against the priest in the US. But Sanchez said he was confident of Montero’s innocence, since the case against him was “not concrete,” and the priest was never criminally charged.
The bishop also confirmed that, to his knowledge, Montero was not investigated further by the Vatican after arriving in Ecuador.
Victim advocates say Montero’s case is a textbook example of how the Catholic Church is shirking its responsibility to protect children.
Zero tolerance policies are one thing, but without meaningful implementation by local bishops — the Vatican’s footmen and enforcers in communities — church doctrines make little difference, according to Clohessy, the director of SNAP.
“There’s no checks and balances,” Clohessy said. “It’s like having speed limits with no cops.”
|A reporter confronts Montero after spotting him driving by with a truck full of young people.|
Minneapolis attorney Jeff Anderson agrees. Anderson, who has spent three decades suing priests and church officials for covering up child abuse, brought a lawsuit against Montero in 2007 and has kept track of the Ecuadorean priest in recent years.
Anderson said the onus to protect children was on the bishops of Guaranda and Minneapolis, whom he claims let Montero flee to Ecuador without being held accountable. And the ultimate responsibility for protecting children from predator priests, he says, lies with the Vatican.
“Until this pope removes top officials in these crimes and sends a message that he is serious, nothing seems to change,” Anderson said. “Until this pope turns over all the documents and all the offenders who they know are offenders and are in ministry and turn them over to law enforcement across the globe, there seems to be little that is being done or changed.”
David Joles, the father of the young girl whom Montero allegedly abused, finds it hard to talk about his disgust for the Catholic Church, and the pain Montero’s actions brought him and his family.
“Sometimes she would bring him up out of the blue,” he said. “She’d be riding in the car, sitting in the back seat and say things like, ‘Father Freddy kissed me on the lips.’”
In 2011, Joles’ daughter died from an inoperable brain tumor. She was 8 years old.
In the pain and anguish he’s had to endure since her passing, Joles is sickened that the man he says so bruised his daughter’s short life is still walking free, and could return to the pulpit at any time.
“I began to see the way [church officials] operate,” Joles said. “It was big business and from their point of view it seemed like the individual was always secondary to the business, and [my daughter] was just but one kid, one individual who had been harmed by a priest, but that Catholicism and the church was more important than people like [her].”
Back in Ecuador, GlobalPost confronted Montero.
After waiting for hours in Las Naves, we eventually spotted him on the narrow road leading into town. His Chevy pickup truck was overflowing with children, whom he had just taken to a local soccer tournament.
Initially reluctant, Montero eventually agreed to an interview on the side of the street in Las Naves. He stressed that he wasn’t hiding from anyone, and said he’d spent years working with children without any other accusations. He denied that the alleged abuse took place.
“There was an accusation, but there was no evidence,” he said.
A shady departure, a new commission, and a new tribunal
The Catholic Church has suffered grievously from the child sex abuse crisis in the US. The scandal has coincided with a decline in US Catholics' Mass attendance, and church officials acknowledge that it has contributed to a sharp global decline of young people joining the ministry.
While the portion of Americans identifying themselves as Catholic has remained relatively stable, these days only about 27 percent say they are “strong” Catholics, down more than 15 points since the mid-1980s. Over the past 50 years, the number of US priests has also declined by about a third, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University-affiliated research center. In contrast, the worldwide Catholic population has remained consistent at about 17 percent.
Early in Pope Francis’s papacy, there’s hope that the church is ready for meaningful change to protect children. Still, there’s already evidence that the pope appears unwilling to publicly confess to the church’s sins.
Consider the case of Father Carlos Urrutigoity, once one of the four most powerful churchmen in Paraguay. Urrutigoity had a big problem: He’d been accused of sexually abusing young men in two different dioceses in the US.
In 2014, following reports by BishopAccountability.org, GlobalPost traveled to Paraguay to confront Urrutigoity, who had been promoted to second-in-command of the diocese of Ciudad del Este in the country's east.
GlobalPost found Urrutigoity celebrating Mass in the lavish surroundings of a major church there. He answered questions without hesitation, claiming that the accusations in his past were all lies. The enigmatic vicar general shrugged off with a smile the public claim by the bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania that he posed a “serious threat to young people.”
One month after GlobalPost published its investigation on Urrutigoity, the Vatican sent a cardinal and a bishop to Paraguay on a well-publicized visit. The purpose of the trip was shrouded in secrecy, but a few weeks later, both Urrutigoity and the bishop of Ciudad del Este who had sheltered and promoted him were removed from the diocese by the Vatican.
Occurring just a year after Pope Francis rose to power, the move gave observers hope that the Vatican was finally getting serious about condemning and stamping out child abuse across the Catholic Church. South American activists in particular were hopeful that the Argentine pope was sending a signal by dismissing Urrutigoity, a fellow Argentine.
A Vatican spokesman was quick to tell reporters that dismissals had more to do with internal church politics than cleaning up child abuse.
But a Vatican spokesman was quick to tell reporters that these dismissals had more to do with internal church politics than cleaning up abuse.
Urrutigoity’s apparent wrongdoing has so far gone unacknowledged by the church, and his alleged victims continue to suffer without the solace of justice.
There have been some positive steps, however. Last year, in addition to holding a well-publicized meeting with victims of abuse by priests, Pope Francis announced the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. And in June the Vatican announced it was setting up a new system of tribunals to hear cases of bishops accused of protecting or covering up child abuse by priests.
GlobalPost tried for weeks to interview Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, who chairs the commission and proposed the new tribunals to the pope. His staff insisted that our story was outside the cardinal’s, and the commission’s, purview.
Numerous calls and emails to the Vatican press office went unreturned.
|Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley as they arrive at the Vatican on Feb. 13, 2015.|
Peter Saunders, a lay member of the new pontifical commission and an advocate for victims of sexual abuse by priests, said the priests GlobalPost tracked down are exactly the sort of cases the Catholic Church, and new commission, need to be focusing on.
“Zero tolerance is meaningless unless it applies to the whole institution,” he said. “Arguably, some of the biggest problems are in the less well-off parts of the world, South America, Africa, the Far East. This is where we know many priests flee to in order to carry on their abuse, which is an absolute outrage.”
Saunders acknowledged that the commission’s remit is still a little fuzzy. “We’re all scratching our heads a bit,” he said. But he also expressed new optimism that a crisis he’s been sounding the alarm about for decades will be addressed.
“I have to remain hopeful until my hopes are dashed,” he said. “This is a new future for the church.”
When the church does nothing: “I wanted to kill him”
Throughout her early adulthood, Jennifer had terrible nightmares.
“She just kept dreaming of this man chasing her and chasing her. She kept spiraling down into a black hole,” her mother recalled in a recent interview with GlobalPost in San Antonio, Texas.
The man hunted her down, into the depths of the hole, until she woke up screaming, Jennifer’s mother said. Eventually, the mother told her daughter to try to keep the dream going, and to spin around inside it and confront the man who chased her through her nights.
Then the daughter had a startling revelation. The man in the dream was the same man she says sexually abused her in front of a stained glass window years before.
“She said it was Father Fred,” the mother said: Federico Fernandez Baeza.
|Federico Fernandez Baeza.|
In 1987, Fernandez was indicted by a grand jury on two second-degree felony charges of indecency with a child. The charges stemmed from his alleged abuse of two boys over two years.
A year later, Fernandez was negotiating a plea bargain with prosecutors, the family’s lawyer told local media. He had offered to plead guilty to the two counts of indecency in exchange for a 10-year suspended sentence and the promise that he would stay away from children and seek psychiatric help, the attorney told reporters.
But Fernandez and the Diocese of San Antonio’s lawyers were also negotiating a cash settlement with the family on the side, for more than $1 million, according to media reports.
Just before the plea bargain was to be heard in court, the cash settlement was finalized. Its terms were sealed and remain a secret.
A few days later, a district judge rejected Fernandez’s plea bargain. She told reporters that she rejected the deal because she did not believe the defendant should get special treatment because he was a priest.
But Fernandez never faced a trial.
After his plea deal was rejected, the San Antonio prosecutors suddenly dropped their case against him. The United Press International news agency quoted Bexar County District Attorney Fred Rodriguez as saying that prosecutors were looking out for the best interests of the victims, and that their family “had already been victimized once.” In asking for a dismissal, prosecutors told the judge that a trial would have been too traumatic for the children, the agency reported.
Fernandez, so close to pleading guilty to child sexual abuse, was free.
This judicial snafu so incensed one Texas state legislator that he introduced a bill that would bar victims of sexual abuse who receive cash settlements from later refusing to testify in criminal cases.
"State laws need to be changed so the guilty offender will not be able to buy off the victim and go free," state Rep. Jerry Beauchamp told a San Antonio newspaper in 1989.
But the bizarre story of Federico Fernandez Baeza wasn’t yet over.
In 2011, Humberto Leal, a Mexican national on death row in Texas for raping and bludgeoning to death a 16-year-old girl in 1995 (a crime he denied committing), suddenly told his attorneys he had been molested as a child by Fernandez.
Leal told a forensic psychologist that the abuse began with inappropriate touching, and ended with anal rape when he was in 5th grade. The abuse revelations inspired a campaign for clemency from others who said Fernandez had abused them as well.
Leal’s legal team then found several more alleged victims of the priest. One was Jennifer. Months later, Leal was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas.
In GlobalPost’s investigation, finding Fernandez wasn’t particularly difficult. We tracked him down at the Universidad de San Buenaventura in Cartagena, where he holds the position of secretary, the second-highest administrative rank according to the university’s website.
Fernandez had been serving as a high-profile priest in Colombia since leaving the US in disgrace. He regularly posts “Sunday Reflections” on the website of a large church in Bogota, and when he joined the university in 2014, the appointment was announced online, complete with a photo of a grinning Fernandez.
After flying to Cartagena to meet him, GlobalPost discovered that speaking to Fernandez would be far harder than finding him.
|This map shows the paths traveled by the priests we tracked after sex abuse allegations were made against them in US and European dioceses.|
A guard at the university’s front gate called someone in Fernandez’s office, then informed us the priest was traveling, and prevented us from entering. During a game of cat-and-mouse that lasted several days and included hours of staking out the university entrance, three university officials confirmed that the priest had indeed been there when we asked to interview him. One of those officials, University Vice President Jorge Valdez, informed us the priest had not left town until the second morning.
We also received several anonymous emails and phone calls from someone identifying themselves as “Limpieza Unidos” (which translates roughly to “Cleaning Together”) who claimed to be a university employee. The messages started arriving shortly after GlobalPost emailed Fernandez’s colleagues at the university.
“I understand that you’re looking for Father Federico Fernandez and he’s hiding from you,” one email read. “I can tell you that he’s here at the university.”
After two brief phone conversations, Limpieza Unidos stopped answering the phone or responding to emails. Calls to the cellphone number for Fernandez that the source provided were also not picked up.
Outside the university gates, students expressed disgust and disbelief that an accused child abuser was employed as a top administrator at their school.
“Just like in the United States, that’s a crime here too. Sadly, they haven’t told us any of this, they’re showing us a different facade,” said 21-year-old microbiology student Jessie Palomino.
“It just makes you think, what is the church doing about these cases?” added her friend, 20-year-old Ena Acosta.
Back in San Antonio, other Catholics were wondering the same thing.
Jennifer’s father told GlobalPost he remains deeply distressed by the nightmares that haunted his daughter. He said his family life has long revolved around the local church. (He asked not to be identified out of concern about backlash from parishioners.)
A former military man, he said he thought many times about taking matters into his own hands. He said he had tried to get postings near Fernandez, so he could slip across the border into Colombia in pursuit of the priest.
“I was going to kill him,” Jennifer’s father said. “I think the whole Catholic Church has failed us, especially around this community. And I’m talking about the orders, the bishops, the cardinals, everybody involved in the church. They know they have a problem, but they continue to let these things happen.”
This story was reported from Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia and the United States.