From Phila. to Brazil, Mystery of Abuser Priest
He Left Pennsylvania in 1985, Paroled after Pleading Guilty to Molesting a 12-Year-Old. His New Parishioners Found Him Inspiring
By Christopher K. Hepp
May 16, 2002
Standing in the shade of the chapel that serves this tiny village, Margarida Maria de Souza had a question.
"How did you ever find us," she asked with a quizzical smile, "here, at the end of the world?"
So Parque Estoril might seem, tucked at the base of the Brazilian Highlands, its roads rutted dirt paths more suited to dogs or donkeys than a rented Fiat.
The hamlet was among the last pastoral stops in the peripatetic career of the Rev. Nilo Cezar Martins, a pediatrician turned priest whose travels included a truncated visit to Philadelphia 17 years ago.
In Philadelphia, he was accused of raping a 12-year-old altar boy. He admitted to having abused the boy and was sent to prison, only to be released within six weeks and deported to his native Brazil.
Almost two decades later, with the Catholic Church battered by an unprecedented sex-abuse scandal, Father Martins' whereabouts were a mystery to officials in Philadelphia. His lawyer had lost track of him, as had the archdiocese.
But as of last week, Father Martins, 65, was in Brazil, still a priest, hospitalized and blind.
That knowledge alone was upsetting to the victim, now 29 and a Philadelphia police officer.
"It actually scares me to know that despite his having been convicted of sexual assault, they would keep him a position where he might do harm to other children," said the victim, who asked that his name not be used. The Inquirer, as a policy, does not publish the names of victims of sexual assault without their permission.
"It creates a dangerous situation if he is able to continue to operate under the guise of a priest. Particularly in Latin America, where people have such great respect for the church and its priests."
A reporter's quest to find Father Martins required a trip first to Rio de Janeiro, the international city of glittering beaches and the jet set, then past Rio's seething slums to the dusty villages that Father Martins came to serve, and finally to a hospital in the state of Sao Paulo.
The journey yielded a secret kept, a promise broken, and, in the end, a mystery unresolved.
On Feb. 2, 1985, Father Martins took his victim, then an altar boy, to his bedroom in the rectory of the Incarnation of Our Lord Church, on Fifth Street in Olney, and had sex. Father Martins, 48, had come to the church less than a year before to be shepherd to the Portuguese-speaking community in Philadelphia.
He was arrested after the boy told his parents. He pleaded guilty to sexually abusing the boy, and at his sentencing hearing, Common Pleas Court Judge Bernard Avellino asked the victim's mother whether she would object if the priest were immediately deported back to Brazil.
She said she was concerned that if no one knew his past, he might repeat his crime.
Father Martins' lawyer, Joseph Bongiovanni, told Avellino that church officials in Brazil were determined to keep an eye on him.
"He will not be unsupervised," Bongiovanni said at the time.
Avellino sentenced the priest to 23 to 46 months in jail. Sent to county prison, Father Martins was paroled by Avellino within six weeks and deported.
An Internet search engine shows Father Martins' name on the Web site of the Diocese of Nova Iguacu, a city of 800,000 just north of Rio de Janeiro in this sprawling South American country.
He is listed as parish priest of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Tingua, a farming community of about 5,000 lying 60 miles north of Rio.
The small, white-and-blue church sits across from a playground of sorts, where shirtless boys were gathered last week, some doing tricks on battered bicycles. A hundred yards away is the town square, where loudspeakers posted on poles keep up an incessant blare from a local radio station. Now playing: "Achy Breaky Heart," the 1992 country hit by Billy Ray Cyrus.
Yes, Father Martins served here, says Maria Silveiro de Souza, the 59-year-old widow of the recently deceased deacon. Until two years ago, when he became ill, he would come each week, Saturdays and Sundays, to serve Mass. Sometimes, he would come at midweek to meet with parishioners in this community, one of a half-dozen he served at the time, she said.
He was a good man, she said, and a good priest. Charismatic, compassionate. He brought the congregation the word of God, she says. Her daughter, Margarida Maria de Souza, agrees.
Do they know of his past?
Margarida's eyes tear when she is told. Both women agree that they are uncertain they would have wanted to know.
"I may have treated him differently," said Margarida, 34. "It was a long time ago. Our church believes in redemption. I only knew him as a good man."
As she spoke, her mother slipped away.
Where is Father Martins now?
He is sick, Margarida said, in a hospital in Sao Paulo, blind and suffering from depression.
Father Bruno, the administrator of the diocese, would know more, she said. Talk to him.
At the community center, a young woman was asked about Father Martins. "I was so shocked to hear," she said.
Maria Silveiro de Souza had already been by, the young woman said. The news travels fast.
Parque Estoril, about five miles east of Tingua, is a community of 500 people who live scattered along the dirt roads that crisscross this region of jungle and banana plantations.
Too small to support a priest, Parque Estoril, like Tingua, relies on visiting clergy to minister to it. Father Martins served that role for a time.
Maxwell da Conceica de Oliveira cares for the church, St. Francis of Assisi, between visits from a priest. He is 42 and the father of two. He is unemployed now, but once worked in a factory where he lost parts of three fingers and almost his life when his left hand was pulled into a wire-making machine. A devoted Catholic, he keeps a portrait of Pope John Paul II in his living room.
He, too, recalled Father Martins only as a good man, a good priest who was integral to the village's spiritual life.
"Without a priest, we are like cattle without a guide," he said. "He brought us the word of God. The only memories I have of him are good memories."
Told of Father Martins' past, he looked distressed.
"No one told us that," he said. "I'm not sure I wanted to be told. To know would have been good so that we could watch him, but also would have changed my image of him."
"It was so long ago. He confessed. Maybe in all that time he became a changed man."
The Rev. Cantanzo Bruno is an owlish man of 60 with a shock of gray hair. His spartan office is on the second floor of the diocesan headquarters in downtown Nova Iguacu, a bustling city 20 miles south of Tingua.
He wears a loose, gray shirt, khaki trousers, and sandals. The only sign of his vocation is a black shell ring he wears as if it were a wedding band. It is carved with crosses and was purchased from an Indian tribe in the Amazon.
He is temporarily running the diocese until Rome names a new bishop to replace the past bishop, who recently died.
He knew Father Martins, he said. Father Martins came to the diocese eight or nine years ago, but from where, Father Bruno was uncertain. Father Martins said he had family in the area and asked the bishop if he could work in the diocese, Father Bruno said.
Father Martins lived at the diocesan headquarters, but was used to fill in elsewhere when churches were left without a priest, Father Bruno said. Eventually, he became a traveling priest serving the parishes around Tingua. He would also spend months at a time in Portugal.
And what of his past?
Father Bruno looked perplexed.
"We had no knowledge of his past life," he said. "This is very surprising. We never had a problem with him, but we were never told his past."
And if the diocese had known, what might it have done?
"These things have to be decided on a case-by-case basis," he says. "There must be justice, both for the priest and for the victim. If a person can be cured of this illness, then he should receive treatment. For a priest, sometimes it is right to give him a second chance."
Where is Father Martins now?
In a hospital in Sao Paulo, where he has been for two years, Father Bruno says. He had suffered from depression and was sick. He is now blind, Father Bruno says.
The precise nature of his illness?
Father Bruno is not sure.
On Wednesday of last week, a woman who answered the phone at the rehabilitation center in Sao Jose de Campos, Sao Paulo state, said Father Martins was a patient there. But he was resting, she said. Call back if you wish to speak to him.
The rehabilitation center, Recanto de Sao Joao de Deus, also serves as a retirement home for elderly and longtime patients of Pius XII hospital next door. Both facilities are surrounded by a wall broken by a gated entrance.
At the gate last Thursday, a visitor drew the attention of Sister San Luis, a short woman, less than 5 feet tall, in her 70s, dressed in an all-white habit.
She led the way through the gates and into the hospital itself, and offered a chair in a busy hallway.
Father Martins had been a patient here for more than a year, she said. But you are too late, she added. He left the afternoon before. He decided he was well enough to do so and signed himself out.
But isn't he blind?
A relative came and got him, she said.
"He left no forwarding address or phone number," she said.
When did he arrive here? What was he treated for?
I'm sorry, she said. When he left, he took his medical files. There is no record of his time here.
Sister San Luis had her own question: Why the interest in Father Martins?
She grew agitated when told and asked her visitor to speak more softly. She shooed away a nearby woman bearing a child.
"I think we should forget this story," she said, finally. "It happened a long time ago. It is best forgotten."
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