Abuser Priests Go to Mexico for Sanctuary

By Jo Tuckman
The Guardian (London)
May 12, 2002

Father Lucas Galván looked a little sheepish as he described his love of science fiction movies and comics. 'I'm just a kid at heart,' said the amiable Mexican-American priest as he sat in the office of his Mexico City church. The bookcase behind him was filled with toy cars and Star Wars figurines.

But his smile faded at the mention of his conviction for sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl in Colorado in 1989. 'That's in the past and it should be left there.'

Galván pleaded guilty to fondling the pre-pubescent child whom he had invited to clean the rectory and his private room after her father died. He was put on probation for two years for the one incident he admitted and the girl - who claimed it had happened repeatedly - settled a suit with the diocese for $90,000. Thirteen years on, after a spell in a church-run rehabilitation centre in New Mexico, followed by five years ministering as normal in Buenos Aires before he was moved to Mexico, Galván's heart goes out to the Boston priests involved in the paedophile scandal now shaking the US Catholic Church.

'No bishop back home would ever take the chance of giving me a job, not with all these lawsuits and things.' he said. But the blow is softened because, as a member of the international Theatine Order, there are plenty of other places he can still go. 'The only way you lose your authority as a priest is when you do something really bad, like breaking the secret of the confessional.'

For Jorge Erdely, an Oxford-educated Mexican doctor in theology who wrote a book in 1994 called Priests Who Abuse, the presence of convicted abusers from other countries is another indication of how easy it is to hide dirty secrets in Mexico. 'The situation here, and in much of Latin America, is much worse than in the US because of the absence of a functioning judicial infrastructure, a culture of litigation or of human rights, together with the profound loyalty people feel to an institution with which their own identity is intertwined.'

Mexico's most notorious case involves Fr Marcial Maciel who 60 years ago founded the Legionaries of Christ, which has since become one of the world's most influential Catholic orders. Five years ago, several middle-aged former seminarians went public with allegations against the now ageing priest who lives in Rome, prompting a campaign by big business linked to the Legionaries - who denied the allegations - that nearly bankrupted one television station and terrified the rest of the media. The current US scandal could eventually reach the Vatican itself.

'This is not just a bishop or even a cardinal. This is the founder of an order, and one who is close to the Pope too,' said Erdely. 'We are living an historic moment when the media is willing to break the taboo, but I fear it will stop at that. We must move from denouncing what happens to calling the perpetrators to account.'

According to Raymundo Meza, legal director of a Mexico City non-governmental organisation dedicated to uncovering religious abuse, only 10 of every 100 cases are reported, and only one gets near court. He estimates that 30 per cent of Mexico's 14,000 priests have been involved in some kind of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment of nuns to mass paedophilia.

Meza is working on the alleged abuse of 60 children ranging from 11 to 13 during catechism classes, including two rapes. He says the priest was moved to a new parish when the parents found out in 1997, while the judicial case is on ice.

Numerous other examples include a priest accused of molesting adolescent boys in a religious boarding school being sent to Africa while the local bishop intervened to quash the process.

'There have been, there are and there will be priests who give in to weakness because we are human beings too,' said Fr Adalberto González, spokesman of the Guadalajara diocese where the church maintains a retreat for priests with personal problems, including abusive conduct.

González cites the guidelines from last month's meeting of US cardinals with the Pope that recommended defrocking only the 'notorious' priests.

Galván's story is a best-case scenario of this doctrine. A victim took the abuse to the courts at an early stage, she was compensated, the perpetrator received psychological treatment and there is no evidence of further incidents.

But it is a risky strategy, illustrated by the priest's admission that he had risked losing control completely. 'It's like alcoholism. Once you fall, it gets harder to quit.

'I thought I was the worst person in the world, thought I wasn't worthy to be a priest. But they persuaded me to stay. They said you made a big mistake, but you can be a good priest.'

The priesthood is everything to this son of a junkyard labourer who was told he was not bright enough to pursue a career in the army. But the Theatines gave him a second chance to which he feels he owes his lif: 'I'd probably be a bum now, or I would have killed myself.'

'That's enough!' Fr Jesús Orozco fumed on discovering his subordinate talking to people he believes are intent on discrediting the Church. 'It wasn't penetration, wasn't rape. He was naive and too trusting, but he is a good and dedicated priest. Is it fair that for a bit of touching he should be condemned to give up his vocation?'


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.