The Oblates and the “geographic solution” to clergy sexual abuse

Los Ángeles Press [Ciudad de México, Mexico]

April 8, 2024

By Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez

Despite the failures of the “geographic solution” to clergy sexual abuse, Catholic religious orders as the Oblates have a long record of using it.

Religion and Public Life: Argentina, Canada, France, Mexico, Paraguay, and the United States are among the countries where the Oblates have relied on the “geographic solution” to clergy sexual abuse.

Two weeks ago, Los Ángeles Press published a report on the arrival of a Paraguayan Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate religious order, from his native country to Mexico.

At the time of the report, he had been in Mexico for at least six months. He kept a low profile. There is no record of him participating as priest in public functions carried by the order.

After arriving to Mexico, Juan Rafael Fleitas López performed as an instructor at the schools where the Oblates train their so-called scholastics, which is how Catholic religious orders such as the Oblates call what otherwise would be identified as seminarians: young students who aspire to become full members of the order and, in some cases, to become priests.

He was, in that regard, a pristine example of the so-called “geographic solution”, which is how analysts of the forty-years-old clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church call the decision by some orders and even some diocesan bishops to move around priests with accusations of sexual abuse from one diocese to another and, if circumstances allow, from one country to another.

One of the many examples of the “geographic solution” is, in Mexico and the United States, the way in which Norberto Rivera Carrera and Roger Michael Mahony, moved around from one country to the other and back again, Nicolás Aguilar Rivera, who at some point was aptly called by the media in native state of Puebla “a state-wide shame”.

Norberto Rivera first sent Nicolás Aguilar Rivera (no family relationship with the Cardinal) from Tehuacán, 260 kilometers or 160 miles East of Mexico City, in the state of Puebla, to Los Angeles, California, during his first stint as bishop. Roger Mahony was, at the time, the almighty Cardinal and archbishop of the largest Catholic diocese in the United States, with more than three million souls under his care.

Aguilar Rivera was some sort of early revelation of the depth of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in México back in the late 1980s, when this issue was kept concealed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and both the Mexican government and media.

Since he was able to move around from Tehuacán, a mid-size metro area in the Central state of Puebla, Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, and then back to Mexico, Aguilar is one of the most notable super-predators in the Mexican Catholic Church. Far from preventing his crimes, both Norberto Rivera and Roger Mahony, provided the perfect settings and cover ups for his actions.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid almost 13 million USD as compensation. Although only Aguilar’s victims in that district of the U.S. Catholic Church received the monies.

Victims by the hundreds

There is no official information as to whether some payments were made by the Mexican dioceses of Tehuacán, Puebla, or Mexico City, which had, at some point in time competence over Aguilar’s performance as priest in Mexico, although it is known that some of his victims received some sort of compensation as a way to prevent the scandal brought by the fact that Cardinal Rivera was called to testify in California, as can be seen in this transcript of his declaration from 2007.

Back in 2007, U.S. and Mexican media estimated Aguilar’s victims as at least ninety minors. He repeatedly challenged that number, but there is no reason to believe his word, since he was able to move around between both countries.

In Mexico, he was able to move officially between at least two Catholic dioceses: Tehuacán and Mexico City, although the last reports about his active life, from the mid to late aughts, talk about him performing duties as priest in the State of Mexico, the Mexican state surrounding Mexico City, that has had the largest number of separate dioceses since the early 1990s.

Because of the “geographic solution,” Aguilar was able to find new unsuspecting victims, every time his bosses in the Catholic hierarchy decided the spin the wheel of fortune, giving him a new chance as priest even if he was not ever appointed as pastor of a parish after Mahony received him with a temporary appointment back in 1987.

It was only in 2009, more than 20 years after the first accusations against Aguilar emerged, that Pope Benedict XVI expelled him from the priesthood. Only then, the Mexican Catholic bishops publicly admitted that Aguilar was a sexual predator. Although there was no official admission as to the number of his victims in either Mexico or the United States, Mexican newsmagazine Proceso estimated them in “more than a hundred” minors.h

And even if apologies have been issued by the las three reigning Popes as to the extent and consequences of clergy sexual abuse, and many leaders of the Catholic Church mimic the reigning Pope’s rhetoric on the issue, at a global scale, the fact remains: there is an impulse to move priests with accusations of different types of sexual misconduct as a way to give them a second, third, or fourth chance in the exercise of the priesthood, with little or no consideration for the potential risk of such moves.

The fact that I rushed to publish my findings as to the potential destination of Juan Rafael Fleitas López as an associate priest in the parish of Saint Mary Magdalene in Tequisistlán, Oaxaca, was to prevent new abuses.

It was necessary since there is no record of an actual active interest of the Mexican Catholic hierarchy on addressing the issue, as proved by the fact that less than half the Mexican dioceses have set up a commission to prevent abuses, as proved last week on these pages.

Even more, since there is no indication that the current Mexican federal government will pursue the accusations made by survivors, their friends, and advocates back in 2017.

Changing of the guard

In that regard, my sources on the issue tell me that Fleitas’s appointment fell to Tequisistlán fell apart, although he spent time there in March, when other parishes managed by the Oblate order had changes of the pastors serving them. The most recent of such changes at the diocese of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, was March 4th.

The changing of the guard happened at San Pedro Mártir Quiechapa, as told by the entry at the Oblates official Facebook account that appears immediately after this paragraph or here.

After that, on March 23rd, the Oblates had a change in management at the parish of Christ Our Lord and Savior, at the diocese of Iztapalapa in Eastern Mexico City, as told by this entry from the same official Facebook account linked immediately after this paragraph.

So, this is the season when the Oblates shuffle their priests from one parish or work to another. This is a healthy practice that forces priests and other religious personnel to confront new challenges and to figure out new ways to do their work. It is not these regular changes what constitutes the practice of the “geographic solution” to the issue of clergy sexual abuse.

Moreover, the Oblates are not new at using the “geographic solution” to move around the priests and religious brothers that have faced accusations of sexual abuse. There is a long record of that order moving around priests and religious brothers from one of their provinces to another, to either cover up for the sexual abuse already perpetrated by some of them or as some sort of preventative measure, when one superior figures out that something is wrong with one of their subordinates in one of their provinces.

Even if Bishop Accountability cannot be seen as an accurate representation of whatever has happened as far as the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church at a global scale, since it has a clear, even if undesired bias for the information coming from the English-speaking Catholic world, in their pages it is possible to find information that accurately depicts how, at least in the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Catholic worlds, the “geographic solution” has been used by the Oblates and many other Catholic religious orders to move around priests with accusations of sexual misconduct.

More than Sixty Oblates

In that regard, Bishop Accountability has identified in one of its pages a minimum of 59 Oblates priests accused of clergy sexual abuse in U.S. and Canadian dioceses. On top of that, in the Spanish-speaking pages of the same website there is information about one more Oblate, Luis Sabarre, originally from the Philippines but acting as a priest in the archdiocese of Mendoza, Argentina.

Also, there is information about at least two other members of this religious order, Gustavo Ovelar and Francisco Bareiro. The story linked above, the first of this series on the Oblates, mentions Bareiro and the impact the accusations on him have had. Both Ovelar and Bareiro are Argentine nationals. The Paraguayan newspaper La Nación described them back in 2016 as hiding out in Paraguay. That newspaper stresses the fact that they were accused in 2014 of sexual assault.

A second Spanish-speaking page referenced at Bishop Accountability details how up until 2020, the Oblates kept their silence regarding the whereabouts of Ovelar and Bareiro.  

What is worse. The English-speaking database of Bishop Accountability added recently data about the abuse perpetrated by French Oblates Edouard Meillieur and Johannes Rivoire in French and English-speaking missions in Canada going all the way back to the 1950s. Both also are representatives of the “geographic solution” as practiced by the Oblates.

It is noticeable that the statement issued by the Canadian province of the Oblates seems to be aware of the need to use the right words when talking about the pain brought by members of that order to their victims and the communities they were supposed to be serving.

The statement issued by the leader of the Oblates in Canada, Father Ken Thorson, reads “the Oblates recognize the tragic legacy of clergy abuse and are sincerely committed to support the Inuit Peoples who advocate for truth, justice, healing and reconciliation.”

How could it be that if the Canadian Oblates seem to be aware of the “tragic” consequences of the “geographic solution” used by the French and Canadian provinces of that order back in the 20th century, the Mexican and Paraguayan leaders of the same orders are so willing to put the Mexican faithful at risk of being abused by Juan Rafael Fleitas López?

That is the saddest aspect of the institutional neuroses affecting the Catholic Church nowadays.

Predator Priest

What is worse, in the English-speaking database available at Bishop Accountability, it is possible to find information about one predator priest moved from the United States to the very same diocese of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, where the leaders of the Mexican province of the Oblates tried to reinstate Fleitas López as priest with the blessing of bishop Crispín Ojeda Márquez, the former auxiliary of none other than Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera.

I used the term “predator priest” knowingly and accurately. Bishop Accountability renders a short bio of Donald L. Stavinoha as dead back in 2007 but convicted in 1988, although the Texas authorities released him in 1991.

It is not clear if he assaulted or abused somebody at Tehuantepec, Mexico. We know, through a story published back in 1992 by Texan newspaper The Houston Chronicle, that he spent some time there between the late 1960s and early 1970s, when José de Jesús Clemente Alba Palacios was the bishop of Tehuantepec.

Oddly enough, Alba Palacios resigned his position as bishop of Tehuantepec back in 1970, when he was only 60 years old. Pope Paul VI appointed him auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Oaxaca, a strange move for a Roman Catholic bishop. Was it because there were already then issues related to abuse in Tehuantepec? God only knows.

As I am typing this story there is no official news about the destination of Juan Rafael Fleitas López. I know his appointment at Tequisistlán, diocese of Tehuantepec, fell apart, but there is no warranty that the leaders of the Oblate order in Mexico will not try to send him to any of their other parishes.

The only thing I know, for sure, is that Fleitas López will not go back to be a priest at parish the Oblates have in Tijuana, Baja California. Although that parish is in Mexico, it is not for the Mexican Oblates to decide who goes there. It is the Oblates of the United States who manage that parish as a “mission territory” in Mexico (see here and here too).

If Fleitas López did something there, it would be the Oblates in the United States, and under the laws of the United States would be liable. How lucky are the Mexican Catholic faithful of Tijuana, protected by U.S. Laws…