Brazil's Church Accused of Protecting a Pedophile
A Convicted Priest Returned to Work - and Molesting, Families Say - after Serving His Time at the Home of an Archbishop
By Kevin G. Hall
May 23, 2002 Thursday
Allegations that the Catholic Church has covered up indecent acts by priests have surfaced across the globe, but the story of the Rev. Bonifacio Buzzi is especially shocking for what it says about church complicity.
Not only did church officials in Brazil conspire to keep his past a secret from parishioners, but with government approval they also confined him in the quarters of an archbishop instead of in prison while he served an abbreviated sentence for molesting boys. Then they let him return without treatment to church duties - and spend time alone with young boys who allege that he preyed on them, too.
The accusations against Father Buzzi, 42, are the latest in at least three criminal complaints alleging child sex abuse by priests in Brazil, home to about 150 million Roman Catholics.
"People find this revolting," said Jesus Antonio de Oliveira Lino, 33, an ex-Catholic who guides tourists around colonial churches in Mariana, where Father Buzzi served his prison sentence in the archbishop's home.
The sex-abuse controversy hurts the Catholic Church, where a growing number of parishioners are being lured away by mystic sects formed by African descendants and the surging evangelical movement. Census figures released this month show the number of people calling themselves Catholics fell from almost 84 percent in 1991 to under 74 percent in 2000.
The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil remains mum on the issue of sex abuse and the church, even as counterparts in other Latin American predominantly Catholic countries such as Chile and Mexico struggle to address the problem publicly.
Last week, The Inquirer reported that the Rev. Nilo Cezar Martins, a Brazilian priest who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing an altar boy while stationed in Philadelphia in 1985, returned to his homeland after he was paroled and served in parishes there.
The story of Father Buzzi threatens to rival in both shock and impact the revelations in the United States, where more than 55 priests have been removed from duties since January.
Despite Father Buzzi's past, the church allowed him unsupervised contact with boys. In March and April, the families of two young boys lodged criminal complaints, alleging that Father Buzzi performed oral sex on the boys during fishing outings in a remote region near Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais.
Allegations of sexual abuse by Father Buzzi first emerged in 1992 in his hometown of Joinville in the state of Santa Catarina. During confession, a mother confided to a priest that Father Buzzi molested her 9-year-old son. Because the allegation came during confession, the church handled the matter internally.
Father Buzzi continued his duties as a priest but later became embroiled in similar acts elsewhere in Brazil. He was convicted in 1995 for molesting an 11-year-old boy and a 5-year-old boy in Santa Barbara, near Mariana.
Sentenced to more than 13 years in prison, Father Buzzi had his penalty reduced to nine years for good behavior. In a rare move that Mariana prosecutor Antonio Carlos de Oliveira said underscored the influence of the Catholic Church in Brazil, the court granted Father Buzzi an exception to the rule of serving two-thirds of any prison sentence. He instead was allowed to serve his term in the home of the Rev. Luciano Mendes de Almeida, archbishop of Mariana. The archbishop served as the head of the national bishops' conference from 1987 to 1995.
"During the time he was at the archbishop's home, there was no therapy or any psychological treatment, so in a certain way you can say there was a lack of caution by the Catholic Church to correct or reorient this priest," Oliveira charged. The mother of A. - names of abused children and their parents are not published in Brazil - blamed the archbishop for allowing her son to allegedly fall victim to Father Buzzi.
"The guilty person is [Archbishop Mendes] who brought him here to Mariana," said Maria Lucia, whose 9-year-old son was allegedly molested by Father Buzzi twice in April.
After publicity surrounding the first allegation, another 9-year-old boy known only as G. stepped forward to allege three similar incidents in March.
Through his lawyer Celso dos Santos, Father Buzzi declined to be interviewed in prison or to respond to written questions from Knight Ridder.
To a judge last month, Father Buzzi called the accusations of both boys "inventions."
During an interview at her humble farm along a dirt road, interrupted by crowing roosters and snorting pigs, Maria Lucia and her son Nelson, 17, confirmed that the second time Father Buzzi came for A., the boy cried and pleaded with his grandmother to avoid the fishing trip but was forced to go.
"A man who is 42 years old, and who is a priest, the thought never enters your head. No one would think he would do what he did to this boy," said Maria Lucia, eyes red and welling with tears.
The archbishop did not respond to requests for an interview. Church officials in Mariana accuse the media of crucifying Father Buzzi.
"The church is a mother with two victims. Who is the greater victim? The one imprisoned," said the Rev. Paulo Barbosa, the priest responsible for the area where the alleged abuses occurred and housemate of Father Buzzi. "The Brazilian press has judged and convicted him. He is the biggest victim here."
In an interview, Father Barbosa said he confronted Maria Lucia last month. He told her the church, not the courtroom, was where the complaint should have been handled.
Father Barbosa is angry that the abuse controversy has overshadowed the community work that priests do in this poor region of Brazil.
Father Buzzi's attorney persuaded a Brazilian judge to perform a sanity exam on Father Buzzi, a rarity for pedophilia allegations, according to prosecutor Oliveira.
Church officials want Father Buzzi declared insane so he can avoid prison and receive psychiatric care, perhaps with drugs that lower his sex drive. They hope to see him return to church duties.
A clergyman familiar with Father Buzzi's predicament conceded the church knew of his past problems, but "we thought he had gotten better."
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