In Venezuela, priests convicted of abuse have returned to ministry

Washington Post

June 21, 2022

By Ana Vanessa Herrero

The 6-year-old walked to his church with exciting news to share. He had given the matter some thought, he told the Rev. Luis Alberto Mosquera, and he had decided he wanted to be an active Catholic.

“If you want to be an altar boy, you must pass a test,” the priest responded, according to the boy. Years later, the child’s testimony about that afternoon in the parish house would prove crucial: A court concluded that Mosquera had sexually abused him.

Mosquera was convicted in 2006 of sexual abuse against a child in and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. But he didn’t complete the sentence. His lawyers feared for his safety in prison and sought probation. In 2008, he was released and returned to the church in Lara state, where he is still a priest. A photo posted on his Facebook page in 2016 and reposted in 2017 shows him surrounded by children.

The 63-year-old cleric’s case is among 10 involving allegations of child sexual abuse scrutinized by The Washington Post over the past two years. The Post interviewed Catholic leaders, police, court officials and victims and reviewed police and court documents. In half of the cases, dating from 2001 to 2022, The Post found priests convicted of charges who were released early from their sentences or served no prison time at all. In at least three cases, the priests were allowed to return to ministry.

Critics see a pattern that they say suggests collusion between a corrupt judicial system and the Church to protect perpetrators rather than victims. The common element in all 10 cases: The children involvedcame from poor and vulnerable backgrounds.

Accusations of abuse by priests have roiled the Church across Latin America in recent years. Reported assaults in Mexico, ArgentinaChile, Colombia and Peru have yielded convictions and resignations at the highest levels of the institution.

But Venezuela has managed to escape the wave. Analysts say a focus on political turmoil in the failing socialist country is one reason. The broken judicial system is another. The Church’s influence and comparative stability is a third.

“So many things have been put off because of the social and political turmoil,” said Tulane University sociologist David Smilde, whose extensive research on the country has focused in part on religion. “One of the institutions that Venezuelans most respect is the Catholic Church. It limits how much you can act.”

Hugo Chávez, the founder of Venezuela’s socialist state, publicly criticized the Church. But under his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, who has been much less outspoken on priests’ transgressions, the Church has become an intermediary between the government and the opposition.

“Our relationship with the Church has been of mediation and political support,” said Julio Borges, an opposition politician.

For clergy who have abused minors, the Church’s status appears to have provided protection. A priest in Zulia, for instance, served no prison time despite being convicted of aggravated sexual abuse against a 12-year-old. A priest in Falcón state pleaded guilty to committing a carnal act against a 14-year-old but was granted house arrest with the condition that he stay away from the victim. He returned to the Church, where he continues his ministry today.

For victims in these cases, life remains a struggle. They typically have little support as they try to move on.

Challenging the Church’s silence and impunity

Mosquera works in the small town of Humocaro Alto, around 300 miles west of Caracas. He has been assigned to at least two different parishes since 1996, when a 12-year-old boy accused him of trying to rape him at gunpoint, police records show. He eventually was acquitted of attempted rape.

In January, Mosquera confirmed to The Post that he was still an active priest. He declined to answer further questions.

His ongoing role didn’t surprise the lawyer who represented the 6-year-old and helped to push for Mosquera’s conviction.

“The Church really protected the priest. They gave him all the support,” attorney Jorge Mendoza said. As the boy’s lawyer, Mendoza said he was pressured to back off: “I was told by the archbishop of Barquisimeto I was going to be excommunicated if I continued defending the child.”

The archbishop died last year. The Rev. Oswaldo Araque, general vicar of Barquisimeto, told The Post that the archdiocese is “attentive” in receiving and acting on accusations against priests. When asked about the Church’s culpability in returning a convicted pedophile to ministry, he said it would investigate if The Post provided details.

“The state is responsible too!” he said. “They let him go.”

Other cases reviewed by The Post also ended with minimal time served behind bars — if that. In one, a priest in Mérida state exchanged texts with a 13-year-old girl, took her to a hotel room and kissed her, a court found. The girl testified that he tried to lift her shirt. His lawyers argued that she wanted to go with him and no sexual act was consummated. He was found not guilty in 2006 of an aggravated lascivious act.

With little trust that Venezuelan law enforcement or the courts will respond quickly and effectively to abuse allegations, some victims have gained attention by airing allegations on social media.

In 2018, a plea for help on Twitter helped expose a case in Anzoátegui state. “Pedophile priest,” it warned, then named the parish and pleaded: “Help us Holiness.” The Rev. Enrique Castro Azócar was arrested the following year and charged with the sexual abuse of two minors.

The search for justice was exhausting for the victims’ father. “Our lives were changed forever because of this,” Robing Damián Salazar, a carpenter, told The Post. “I’ve been harassed and threatened, fighting for my children.”

Castro pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse of a child and was sentenced to five years. But instead of going to prison, he was granted a type of probation known in Venezuela as alternative measure of liberty. He was let go on the condition that he stay away from the victims, be treated by a psychologist and appear in court every 30 days.

Advocates for victims contend the sentence violated a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court, the country’s highest tribunal, that says individuals convicted of such crimes are not eligible for alternatives to incarceration. “Things like this reflect the state of defenselessness and impunity that prevails in the country,” said attorney Carlos Trapani, head of the children’s rights organization Cecodap.

A police record obtained by The Post shows the priest had been accused of a similar crime in the Diocese of Barcelona. At least twofamilies filedcomplaints with prosecutors in 2014, police and prosecutors’ records show. None resulted in charges. The alleged victims were as young as 10.

According to police documents, Bishop Jorge Aníbal Quintero said Castro would be removed as a priest. In fact, he was simply moved to another parish. Neither Quintero nor the Diocese of El Tigre responded to requests for comment. Castro could not be reached for comment.

The Rev. Carlos Viña, vicar of Barcelona in Anzoátegui state, has been in charge of investigating abuse allegations across Venezuela for 10 years. He said he has found evidence to prove eight cases, though none has been made public by the Church.

“A priest who commits a crime represents a risk to children and teenagers, and it cannot be tolerated,” Viña told The Post in January.

Cases show ‘evident irregularities’

A judge from the Supreme Court, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, reviewed six cases identified by The Post.

In one, the Rev. Rafael Márquez in Zulia, founder of a network of homes to shelter and educate children living on the streets, was charged with aggravated violent lewd acts against 12 children under 16 “in the presence of other children and adolescents,” the prosecutor said in court documents.

Márquez’s sentence was not made public. The last available court document is dated 2011.

Márquez worked as a priest until his death in 2018, according to the Rev. José Palmar, who knew him personally. “He was given alternative sanctions,” Palmar said. “In that case, the Church didn’t do what it should have done. There was no canon trial. The state and the Church were complicit.”

The priest’s lawyer, Álvaro Castillo Zeppenfeldt, did not respond to a request for comment.

All the cases, the Supreme Court judge said, reveal “evident irregularities,” including granting alternatives to jail to convicted abusers who returned to the ministry without supervision. “In all of them I find crimes that should have ended in greater punishment, and they didn’t. There is a problem.”

Neither the Vatican nor the Venezuelan bishops’ conference responded to requests for comment.

The Post interviewed dozens of people who said they were abused or harassed by clergy but were unable to get justice.

“There is a macabre system” between the Church and the state, said a nun who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Families need help, food, all things that the Church does in poor communities, and perpetrators use this to get to the victims and keep them quiet.”

José Leonardo Araujo, a 33-year-old lawyer in Caracas, has spent his adult life in and out of therapy to deal with the suicidal thoughts that torment him at least monthly.

Araujo says he was abused at 13 by a Mexican priest working for the San Pablo congregation in Venezuela. He reported the allegations to local prosecutors in Mérida state in 2019, but the case died in the judicial system. He says he then turned to the Church but was told there was no evidence. Cardinal Baltazar Porras, who received the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment.

The case was soon forgotten in Venezuela, but it drew attention in Mexico, where the Rev. Juan Huerta Ibarra was investigated by the Church, found guilty and expelled from the priesthood, according to a statement from the Society of Saint Paul. Huerta declined to comment.

None of the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations in Venezuela focus on abuse by priests. Victims have turned to groups in Argentina and Chile for support. Víctor Hernández, a 26-year-old from the city ofBarquisimeto, says he searched for help in Venezuelabefore finding a survivors network in Argentina.

Hernández recounts being abused at 15 by a now-deceased monsignor in Lara state. He recently reported his case to the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Caracas. In a written statement, he described an episode in which the monsignor abused him and then asked him to stay for an impromptu mass. “I arranged everything just as he was indicating. On his bed, he presided over the Eucharist, took Communion and gave me the sign of peace; all of this after having abused me less than an hour ago,” he wrote.

The nunciature told him in an email that the case was submitted to the Apostolic Administrator of Barquisimeto. The nunciature did not respond to a request from The Post for comment.

“There’s nothing else I can do,” said Hernández, who now lives in Spain. “Here, we are alone.”