|Argentina: Allegations of Illegal Adoptions Implicate Church
By Marcela Valente
February 10, 2006
BUENOS AIRES, Feb 10 (IPS) - Maria Jerez remembers her first daughter, who would be 17 today. She says that when the baby was born, she gave her to Catholic nuns in the northern Argentine province of Santiago del Estero in exchange for a promise of a house.
The local bishop's office flatly rejects such allegations.
"The nuns told me they would find parents for her. Many girls have given up their babies. My sister has given them around five children," she said matter-of-factly.
Jerez is just one of eight poor women who allege that their babies or small children were taken from them in procedures marred by irregularities in the town of Anatuya in the province of Santiago del Estero, according to a lawsuit that implicates members of the order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and the office of the local Roman Catholic bishop.
Like the other women who appeared on a TV programme broadcast this week, Jerez looked impassive. She did not explain why she agreed to give up her daughter, merely commenting that she never tried to get her back because she found a new partner and went on to have other children.
In a telephone conversation with IPS, the vicar general of the bishop of Anatuya, Hernan Gonzalez Cazon, described the women's testimony as "dirty slander." He also said the idea that the bishop's office was providing cover for a system of illegal adoptions was "false and unfair."
Gonzalez Cazon, who has worked in the diocese for 20 years, only had words of praise for the work of the nuns in local homes for senior citizens and children, and in the hospital. "I hope there is an in-depth investigation into these claims, because we feel very hurt and distressed about this whole thing," said the priest.
Santiago del Estero is one of the poorest provinces in Argentina. Sixty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to less than 40 percent nationwide. The poverty rate is especially high in rural areas, where a number of cases of child malnutrition have been reported.
Anatuya, a town of 25,000, only has one hospital, which lacks an intensive care unit and does not even have a permanent anesthesiologist.
Santiago del Estero has experienced intense political upheaval over the past two years. In 2004, the national government assumed direct rule of the province, dismantling a corruption-riddled family-based regime led by rightwing former governor Carlos Juarez and his wife Nina Aragones, which ruled the province for nearly 50 years. The Catholic Church frequently clashed with the Juarez clan.
The reports of illegal adoptions dealt another blow to local Catholic authorities, who have already been hit hard by scandals involving several priests.
Early this month, Bishop of Anatuya Adolfo Uriona was arrested after a 24-year-old woman accused him of sexual abuse.
Uriona, who is known for his progressive policies and works closely with local social organisations, has received strong backing from national Catholic Church leaders, who see the accusation as part of a smear campaign against him.
And last year, Juan Carlos Maccarone stepped down as bishop of Santiago del Estero after a video was broadcast showing him engaging in "intimate relations" with a 23-year-old chauffeur.
The young man said he made the video to get back at Maccarone for failing to help his family. The former bishop, whose progressive positions often irritated local authorities and the local elite, worked hard on behalf of the poor and was an opponent of the Juarez regime.
The latest denunciation, of a supposed illegal adoption racket, was brought to court by Fundacion Adoptar, a non-governmental child advocacy organisation from the neighbouring province of Tucuman.
Julio Ruiz, the head of Fundacion Adoptar, told IPS that his organisation had received "countless denunciations from Anatuya."
A local journalist and a local human rights activist charged that trafficking of small children has been going on in the province for 40 years.
Last year, the provincial high court ordered an investigation of the local civil law courts in Anatuya because of the unusually large number of adoptions in the district.
"I understand that the number looks high, because cases in which a family member takes in a child abandoned by its parents are also classified as 'adoptions'," said Vicar General Gonzalez Cazon.
But the provincial high court apparently suspects that something else is going on under that guise.
Luis Santucho, an activist with the Argentine League for the Rights of Man, said the cases of adoption in which irregularities have been committed could total as many as 25,000 during the decades in which the Juarez family ruled the province as a personal fiefdom.
Journalist Aldo Managua of Anatuya maintained that the cases of illegal adoption that have never been reported run into the thousands.
He also said that his investigations into the matter had brought him death threats, and that two weeks ago he was beaten up by unidentified thugs.
The legal action filed by the Fundacion Adoptar focuses on Bishop Antonio Baseotto, who served in Anatuya from 1978 to 2004 in various posts until he was appointed military bishop by the Vatican.
However, the bishop was removed from that position last year by President Nestor Kirchner after he quipped that Health Minister Gines Gonzalez Garcia should be "thrown into the sea headfirst with a large millstone around his neck." The bishop's outburst was triggered by the minister's position in favour of decriminalising abortion and promoting sex education in schools.
One of the cases reported by the Fundacion Adoptar which touches most closely on Baseotto is based on testimony from his former driver, Bernardo Jara, who worked for the bishop's office for 30 years and confessed that he registered a newborn baby girl as his own daughter 22 years ago. He said Baseotto knew about the illegal adoption.
For her part, Jerez said the daughter she gave up is in Buenos Aires "with Baseotto's sister," as she was told by the nuns.
But Vicar General Gonzalez Cazon told IPS that the supposed links between illegal adoptions and Baseotto are "far-fetched."
Ruiz, the head of Fundacion Adoptar, said that according to the information gathered, "the organisation had a well-established structure and infrastructure and could not possibly have operated without the bishop's office having known about it."
The activist said he found out that there was a home for pregnant teenagers next to the hospital in Anatuya. There, he said, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul "convince the girls to give up their babies in exchange for home appliances and other goods."
"We had never heard of anything so appalling," he said. "For each baby the women had, they got a wall built (in their new house), or they were given a washing machine or refrigerator."
But in Gonzalez Cazon's view, Ruiz is unfamiliar with the province, underestimates local residents, and reaches mistaken and unfair judgments on the community service work carried out in the province for decades by the nuns.
Fundacion Adoptar reportedly learned about the cases accidentally, through a mix-up in the free national hot-line that receives reports of child abuse, which is run by different social organisations in the provinces.
The Fundacion operates the hot-line in the province of Tucuman. Although Anatuya is in Santiago del Estero, and the calls should have been attended there, they were put through instead to the Fundacion over the past year and a half.
The members of the Fundacion thus visited Anatuya and collected testimony from several women. In October the group brought a lawsuit before a federal court, which referred it to a provincial court in December.
Ruiz said he also visited a well-known human rights group, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, three times in search of support. But he only received a brief message in which the group said it backed the investigation.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo was created during the 1976-1983 dictatorship to track down the children of victims of forced disappearance. The children were either abducted along with their parents or born to political prisoners in captivity and later stolen and raised by military families.
The statement issued by Grandmothers said "We support every effort undertaken in any part of the country or the world to safeguard children and the right of parents to raise their own children from birth."
Ruiz backed the decision for several of the women who said they gave their children to the nuns in Anatuya to appear on the news programme Informe Central, which is broadcast by the America free-to-air TV station.
On the programme which went on the air last Monday, Yolanda Vazquez stated that 10 years ago she took her seven-month-old baby to the hospital because he was malnourished, and that he disappeared from the hospital.
She said she left her other children at home, under the supervision of her oldest boy. But when she returned home, she found that two of the youngest children had been taken away.
"They told me to go see the lawyer Rolando Garcia," who has been accused by several of the women of being a middleman in the alleged trafficking of children, "and he sent me to the nuns. When I asked them about my kids, they told me they were ok, and that they were living with a family in Lomas de Zamora in greater Buenos Aires," said Vazquez.
In his interview with IPS, the only case to which Gonzalez Cazon referred was that of Vazquez, whose children, he said, had been legally removed because of neglect and malnutrition. (END/2006)
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