El País [Madrid, Spain]
November 17, 2023
By DIANA LÓPEZ ZULETA
Father Juan Huerta Ibarra flees trial in Venezuela, accused of repeated child sexual abuse by José Leonardo Araujo, who was 13 at the time
Bogotá — The more time passed, the harder it became temper the deep sorrow gnawing at his soul. For almost twenty years, José Leonardo Araujo Araque had kept silent about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. At times, he could hardly put his own thoughts straight — he felt like a hook was stuck in his throat. He decided to study law, driven by a desire for justice. During his criminal law classes, he would get distracted counting the months he had left to file a complaint before the statute of limitations would expire, then the professor’s voice would jolt him out of his disturbing memories.
At the age of 13, José Leonardo dreamed of becoming a priest. He was in the eighth grade at a Cathoilic school run by Dominican nuns in La Azulita, Venezuela. One day, he traveled to the city of Mérida, three hours from his hometown. At San Pablo bookstore, he met the man who would later become his abuser: Father Juan Arcadio Huerta Ibarra. A vocational educator and counselor, the priest invited him to visit his religious training school. The first few times they saw each other, Huerta was kind and respectful. This was in was 2001.
Huerta Ibarra was born in El Arenal, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. When he moved to Mérida in 1997, he was already a priest and a member of the Catholic religious congregation known as the Society of Saint Paul, whose members are known as Paulines. There, he founded the “Queen of the Apostles” community and became its superior. Present in 32 countries, the Society of Saint Paul is dedicated to the editing and publication of religious books and magazines, and to other forms of evangelization and religious formation. Despite his 46 years of age and his traditional clerical attire, Huerta was a jovial and charismatic man. Today, José Leonardo still keeps a printed photo the priest gave him when he was ordained: his mother giving him her blessing, and José Leonardo with his head bowed down. He had dreamed of that moment of religious accomplishment for years, and now he had finally achieved it.
José Leonardo began to travel to Mérida every weekend. From Friday to Sunday, he would spend his nights in the House of Formation, an old building in the country with a large stone entrance, stucco walls and a gable roof of terracotta tiles. The house’s other residents — fellow underage minors studying to become priests — slept together in a large room filled with bunk beds. At first, José Leonardo also spent the nights in that room, but that arrangement would soon change. Huerta gave him gifts: T-shirts, medals, religious books, key chains. In an old photograph, José Leonardo appears young and beardless, with a sad look and a cross that Huerta had given him hanging around his neck — a badge signaling his status as an “aspirant” to the Society of Saint Paul. “He made me feel privileged, protected,” José Leonardo says. The boy gained so much trust from his family that they would let him travel not only to Mérida, but to religious missions in other cities as well. “My parents would never have imagined that he would start abusing me,” he says.
José Leonardo says the abuse began one day when he and the priest went out one day to do some shopping. On their way home, while Huerta was driving the car, he put his hand on José Leonardo’s leg and touched his groin. The boy was so stunned he didn’t know what to do. Later, when it was time to go to bed after watching a movie on TV with the other young men at the school, Huerta told José Leonardo to come to his room. He pulled out the double trundle bed for him to lay down and sleep on. Suddenly, while the boy was lying face down, Huerta pulled him by the arm: “Come here, pendejo,” he said, then forcibly kissed him, exposed and touched José Leonardo’s genitals, rubbed them all over himself, and then gave him fellatio. José Leonardo was paralyzed, unable to move or speak. He was afraid to run away. “I was not able to speak about the situation to anyone, least of all my parents.”
After he would abuse him, Huerta would go to sleep, then at 4 a.m. he would wake up, grab the rosary that hung at the head of the bed, put on his stole and kneel in prayer. He would pray three times more than usual — reciting 15 Mysteries instead of the usual five — and then he would officiate Mass. This was one of the most shocking and contradictory images for José Leonardo to contend with in his memories. “After abusing me, he would get up the next day to recite his morning prayers as if nothing had happened,” he recalls. José Leonardo had also witnessed Father Huerta mistreating other children at the House of Formation. “He would give them kisses on the lips, there was inappropriate touching. I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” he says. Because of his age, José Leonardo was not yet eligible for vocational apprenticeship, since one of the minimum requirements was to be in the final grade of high school. “It was something he had planned, because he knew perfectly well that a 13-year-old boy had no chance of entering the religious community,” he says.
For one long year, Father Huerta repeated the sexual abuse every weekend. José Leonardo felt he had reached a dead end. “In my mind was the figure of the consecrated priest, who had already drilled certain ideas into my mind, specifically, that whatever the superior says is the law, that I had to comply, that he who obeys never errs,” he says. The final instance of abuse took place during Holy Week, in 2002, inside the sacristy of a church. They had traveled to Chacantá for a religious mission. This time, the priest’s sexual assault was interrupted when a church worker passed by and saw them. But the Semana Santa observances continued as planned: among the week’s activities was a penitential act in which the faithful confessed to Father Huerta. José Leonardo felt demoralized and dejected, and he decided to confront him during confession.
“Please, don’t do this to me anymore,” he begged the priest.
“Do what?” Huerta asked.
“That thing you do to me in bed.”
“Are you repentant?” the priest asked.
“Yes,” José Leanardo replied.
Huerta told him to pray the Act of Contrition, then absolved him of his “sins.” José Leonardo confessed, as if he was the one who had committed the crime. That was when the abuse finally stopped. He never set foot in the House of Formation again, but paradoxically, his faith remained intact. “The church gave me a way to sublimate the pain,” he says, now 35 years old. José Leonardo continued pursuing a career as a priest, entered the seminary, but then eventually decided to quit, out of disenchantment, and opted for studying the law instead. When he graduated law school, he was presented with his diploma. As the audience applauded, he cried. Father Huerta, for his part, was sent to Rome in 2002. He returned the following year to Venezuela, but to Caracas instead of Mérida, where he remained until 2012, when he was transferred to the United States.
José Leonardo was so depressed that he wouldn’t get out of bed until four or five in the afternoon. He preferred to sleep, to forget the world. He preferred to sleep, to not have to think. In 2017, he became so depressed that he attempted suicide several times. It was through the process of psychotherapy that he was finally able to open up about the abuse he had suffered. “I never talked about it before, out of fear,” he says. “I was ashamed.” He eventually gathered enough strength to make the decision that would change everything: to seek justice, before the statute of limitations expired. “But the psychic time experienced by victims is not the same as chronological time,” he says. “We’re talking about violations to an individual’s dignity that leave wounds too deep to speak of statutes of limitations.”
Mustering his determination, he confronted Huerta in 2018. He searched for his contact, found it, and sent him a message on WhatsApp: “We have a conversation pending concerning the events that happened. It’s time to talk about it,” he told him. “Yes,” the priest replied, “and the best thing would be to meet face to face.” In the messages, Huerta never directly admits to the crime, but he also never refutes José Leonardo’s statements, nor does he deny the stipulated facts. On the contrary, the priest expresses his desire to save them both time and money and ask for forgiveness before the Virgin of Guadalupe. “It was never my intention to hurt you,” Huerta writes. “Why didn’t you tell me before, we could have worked it out together.” Then he asks José Leonardo to help him protect his priestly investiture and suggests they work together to reach an agreement for reparation. Eventually, with the help of a law firm, the two parties worked up a settlement that would compensate José Leonardo, but the priest refused to comply.
In March 2019, José Leonardo denounced Huerta to the Archbishop of Mérida. The Jesuit priest Arturo Peraza was appointed to carry out the investigation. José Leonardo provided his testimony and presented text messages, photos and psychiatric reports as evidence. Statements of other witnesses corroborated that the victim did indeed frequent the location in question, and that his descriptions corresponded to the place where the events had occurred. Months later, in a clear indication of negligence, Peraza decided not to open a canonical process and instead closed the “investigations.” In a brief report, he concluded that the complainant had mixed up dates, that the witnesses — current members of the congregation — had never observed any unusual behavior on the part of Huerta, and that the psychological report did not constitute evidence of the events narrated by Araujo but only “evidence of the damages he has suffered.”
Peraza told EL PAÍS that he has no intention of “concealing” anything and has no personal interest in the case, and denied that he had dismissed any evidence. “The occurrence of a fact requires, in addition to the word of the alleged victim, other elements that show its possible occurrence,” he said. But sexual abuse is a crime that generally happens in private places and without direct witnesses, and the victim’s testimony is often the only evidence available. “Where was he going to find more evidence if the abuse happened in a closed room?” José Leonardo asks.
That same year, he filed a criminal complaint with the Venezuelan justice system and addressed a letter to the Superior in Rome, another to the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Huerta had lived, and one more to Mexico. At first, he received no response. José Leonardo insisted that Rome provide an answer, and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith then ordered a disciplinary cause to be opened in the Primate Archdiocese of Mexico, where Huerta had been transferred.
The specific crime for which Huerta is charged under Venezuelan criminal law is called “sexual abuse of children with continuous penetration” and carries a penalty of up to 17 years in prison. The courts in Mérida requested that Father Huerta be interrogated and present himself before the court. José Leonardo sent the request to the congregation and asked for their cooperation in bringing Huerta to Venezuela. The secretary of the Episcopal Conference of Mexico seconded the request, but the provincial superior dismissed it, and Huerta remained in Mexico for three more years with the complicity of the church, knowing that he had a pending criminal complaint against him in Venezuela. The Society of Saint Paul in Mexico told EL PAÍS that in the course of the canonical process, another victim had come forward who preferred to remain anonymous, “because he had already built a life.”
Using the same evidence presented by José Leonardo in Venezuela, where the priest Arturo Peraza closed the church’s investigation, Father Huerta was found guilty in a canonical process carried out in Mexico in December 2021. Despite knowing that Huerta had an open criminal case in Venezuela, he remained in the provincial house of the Paulines until May 2022, when he was finally expelled by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The Society of Saint Paul told EL PAÍS that they are currently unaware of Huerta’s whereabouts. “Only Huerta Ibarra’s priestly status was withdrawn, without him being handed over to judicial authorities, as the provisions established by Pope Francis himself establish,” explained Cristina Sada Salinas, president of Spes Viva, a Mexican civil society association that supported José Leonardo in filing his complaint.
José Leonardo has contacted other victims. Before being sent to Venezuela, the priest had already abused another young man in Mexico in 1996. Moving priests who committed sexual abuse from one city to another was instituted as an accepted practice by church authorities. “It was a geographical cure for evil,” says José Leonardo, who now considers himself an agnostic.
The Mérida State Control Court issued an international arrest warrant for Huerta Ibarra, and Interpol issued a red notice, meaning that he is now a wanted man in 195 countries. He was last seen a few months ago at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. Huerta, now 68, had a beard and was wearing black glasses.
Days ago, José Leonardo was protesting in Rome to demand zero tolerance for clerical abuse, an initiative led by Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), a global network of abuse survivors, activists and human rights defenders. ECA is concerned that Huerta may have escaped to the United States, given that Venezuela has no extradition treaty with that country. The organization has demanded that the Vatican be held accountable before an international tribunal. “There is a systematic cover-up by the Vatican, using delay tactics such as transferring priests who have committed acts of abuse to other countries, so that they can’t be prosecuted,” says Adalberto Méndez, a lawyer with ECA. “They seek to prosecute under canonical law and not under criminal law, and clearly their sanctions do not require deprivation of liberty or compensation for the damage — they are only of a spiritual nature.”
José Leonardo filed a complaint with the dicastery in Rome (the Vatican’s court of justice) against the superiors who covered up Huerta’s crimes, delayed the process, and contributed to the fact that today he is a fugitive from justice. So far, there has been no response. The church has yet to ask for forgiveness.
“To put an end to this, the church must also put an end to the idealization of the figure of the priest, of the Alter Christus,” José Leonardo says. “If the figure of the priest continues to be exalted, abuses will continue to occur because they are, in essence, abuses of power.” While Huerta evades capture, José Leonardo plans to file a civil suit against the church. It would be the first case of its kind in Venezuela. He says that all he wants is to heal, and for justice to be done. “It’s one thing to pray,” he says. “It’s quite another thing to confront the church,” he says.
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