Cardinal's Sex Abuse Lawsuit Watershed Event for Mexico
Church Leaders Had Long Been Seen As Untouchable
By Marion Lloyd
October 6, 2006
Mexico City — When the scandal over pedophile priests rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in 2002, the shock waves barely registered in Mexico.
Now, just four years later, the Catholic Church in Mexico is facing unprecedented scrutiny, its most prominent official has been accused of protecting a convicted sex offender and a raft of criminal suits against alleged pedophile priests are making their way through the courts.
"This is a very key moment," said Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist who has written extensively on Mexico's church. "The victims are starting to become aware of their rights and to demand justice."
Sexual abuse cases against priests were once virtually unknown in Mexico, which is home to the world's second-largest Catholic population after Brazil.
But over the last few years, experts say, at least a dozen alleged victims have pressed charges. In the latest case, police in Puebla state on Monday arrested a priest accused of raping a 9-year-old boy. And judges are increasingly convicting the offenders, including one priest who was sentenced to six years in jail on Sept. 22.
Many victims are motivated by the new willingness of the media to report on such cases, as well as Vatican statements condemning sexual abuse by priests, experts say.
'Inspire more Mexicans'
A civil lawsuit filed in Los Angeles on Sept. 19 against Cardinal Norberto Rivera could embolden even more victims to come forward, activists say.
The lawsuit accuses Rivera, the powerful head of Mexico City's archdiocese, and Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, with conspiring to protect a Mexican priest accused of molesting boys in both countries.
The cardinals deny the allegations, which they claim are motivated by greed. The lawyers are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
The case was filed on behalf of Joaquin Aguilar, 25, a Mexican man who claims he was raped by priest Nicolas Aguilar in 1994. He says he later reported the incident to police and wrote a letter to Rivera, but got no response. The priest and the alleged victim are not related.
"We hope this will inspire more Mexicans to overcome their fear and denounce their persecutors," said Eric Barragan, a spokesman for the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which is sponsoring the lawsuit. The group, which announced the opening of a Mexico chapter in December, has since received more than 100 calls from alleged victims, he said. But most people are too frightened to press charges.
Joaquin Aguilar said he received death threats after going public with his allegations in November. On Sept. 25, he told police his father had been kidnapped at gunpoint for four hours by masked men who ordered him to drop the case.
"I'm afraid for myself and for my family," he said during a Sept. 20 press conference to announce the case. "The church in Mexico is very powerful."
His American lawyers, who were interrogated by Mexican immigration authorities after the press conference in Mexico City, accuse the Catholic Church of orchestrating an intimidation campaign.
Church officials deny it. But the case is a watershed in Mexico, where the church hierarchy has long been seen as untouchable, experts say.
Rivera, who had been named as possible successor to Pope John Paul II, is the highest-ranking Mexican church official to be accused in connection with a sex abuse case.
"It's an incredible blow to Norberto Rivera, and to church as a whole," said Masferrer, the scholar.
On Sept. 24, protesters waved signs reading "we don't want kids raped in heaven" and "call a rapist by his name" outside the capital's main cathedral, where the cardinal was officiating Mass.
A visibly flustered Rivera later read a statement to reporters insisting he had always been tough on offending priests. He also announced the appointment of two church officials to investigate sex abuse allegations in his diocese.
On Sept. 24, the cardinal urged Nicolas Aguilar to confront the "terrible charges" against him and turn himself in to police "for the good of his own conscience and to avoid any more damage to the church."
Aguilar, 65, is believed to be hiding out in his native Puebla state, where witnesses say he surfaces occasionally to officiate Mass and sell religious music outside churches.
In 1997, he was charged with sexually abusing four boys in the state, according to Mexican news reports. He was convicted on one count in 2004, but the judge waived the sentence, citing the statute of limitations.
California authorities have charged the priest with 19 felony counts of committing lewd acts on a child while he was in Los Angeles for nine months in 1987 and 1988. Those cases are pending, Los Angeles Police Detective Federico Sicard said, and there is an active warrant out for Aguilar's arrest.
Cited as proof
The civil lawsuit charges that Cardinal Rivera conspired with Mahoney to move Aguilar to Los Angeles to save him from facing trial in Mexico. It also alleges that Mahoney's assistant told the priest that Los Angeles police were on his trail. Days later, he fled to Mexico, where he continued to work as a priest.
The suit cites as proof an exchange of letters between the two cardinals after Aguilar returned to Mexico in 1988.
"It is almost impossible to determine precisely the number of young altar boys he has sexually molested, but the number is large," Mahoney wrote to Rivera, accusing him of failing to warn him about the priest, according to a copy of the letter published in Mexico's Proceso magazine. "This priest must be arrested and returned to Los Angeles to suffer the consequences of his immoral actions."
Rivera responded: "You will understand that I'm not in a position to find him, much less force him to return and appear in court."
On Sept. 26, the Puebla government ordered police to detain Nicolas Aguilar for questioning. And the head of the state's human rights commission urged more victims to denounce the priest in hopes of charging him again.
It may not be easy.
Unlike in the United States, where sex abuse victims can report crimes until they turn 26, in Mexico the statute of limitations expires in some cases after a year.
Even so, experts say, the fact that victims are coming forward is progress. "Everyone has the idea that in the Catholic Church there are problems," Masferrer said. "But this is the first time that they are confronting them."
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