Argentine court finds two Catholic priests guilty of sexually assaulting deaf children; first convictions in long-alleged abuse
|A group outside the courthouse celebrates guilty verdicts for the Rev. Nicola Corradi and two others accused of sexual abuse while at the Antonio Provolo Institute for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Mendoza. (Andres Larrovere / AFP / Getty Images)
Chico Harlan and
November 25, 2019
An Argentine court on Monday found two priests and a lay worker guilty of the sexual abuse of 10 former students of a Catholic school for the deaf, the first legal victory for a community of victims stretching from Italy to the Andes whose complaints about one of the clerics to church officials, including Pope Francis, went unheeded for years.
The verdict was another stain on the church’s handling of sex abuse cases in Francis’s native Argentina. Prosecutors last week requested an arrest warrant for Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, a longtime associate of the pope accused of abusing two seminarians.
A Washington Post investigation this year found years of church inaction in the case of at least one of the priests convicted Monday in the abuse of male and female students at the Antonio Provolo Institute for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in the western Argentine city of Luján de Cuyo between 2004 and 2016.
The three-judge panel in the northwestern Argentine province of Mendoza ruled against the three defendants in 25 instances of abuse.
The Rev. Nicola Corradi, 83, who appeared in a wheelchair, averted his gaze as the court sentenced him to 42 years in prison.
Corradi appeared on a list of alleged sexual-predator priests accused by former students of a Provolo Institute in Italy that was sent to Francis in 2014. Francis was handed another copy of the list a year later by one of the victims. But the church didn’t begin an investigation until 2017, after Argentine authorities had arrested Corradi and shut down the school.
The Rev. Horacio Corbacho, 59, darted his eyes Monday as he was sentenced to 45 years. Armando Gómez, a gardener at the institute, was sentenced to 18.
None of the defendants spoke before the sentencing. Church officials and a lawyer for the defendants did not respond to requests for comment.
Parents and students — described by prosecutors as the “perfect victims” in that many could not communicate well, even with their families — celebrated. Victims wrapped arms around each other outside the courtroom and danced in a circle.
“You have no idea how important this is for us, and for the world,” said Ariel Lizárraga, the father of a victim, who has spoken publicly of the abuse. “The church has been trying to hide these abuses. But these priests raped and abused our children. Our deaf children! Today the taboo against accusing priests stops here.”
|The Rev. Nicola Corradi, in wheelchair, Armando Gómez and the Rev. Horacio Corbacho, back right, are escorted into the courtroom Monday. (Marcelo Ruiz Mendoza / AP)
Corradi, Corbacho and Gómez were arrested in 2016 after Argentine authorities raided the school. They had been tipped off by a victim who came forward with the aid of an interpreter. Within weeks, investigators uncovered some of the worst allegations in the global scandal plaguing the Catholic Church. Church officials and employees were alleged to have preyed on the most isolated and submissive children.
Witnesses testified that the deaf children were not allowed to learn sign language, but given lessons to speak like the hearing. Prosecutors said the children were fondled, raped, sometimes tied up and, in one instance, forced to wear a diaper to hide the bleeding.
Students who used sign language were smacked. One of the few hand gestures used by the priests, victims say, was an index figure to the lips — a demand for silence.
Corradi, the school’s spiritual director, had a decades-long career, first in his native Italy and later in Argentina. In Italy, he was accused of molesting deaf children at a Provolo institute in Verona. His name appeared in the sworn statements of 15 former students of that school, who accused 24 priests and other faculty members of abuse.
Among the accused priests and other religious figures, only one priest was ordered to a life of prayer and penance away from minors. Three other priests were given warnings by the Vatican to watch their future behavior. Corradi was not among those disciplined. None of the Italian cases went to trial.
Corradi’s name appeared again in the 2014 letter to the pope.
“We hope the prosecutors now will launch a criminal investigation of the archbishops and other church leaders who knew or should have known that child abusers were running that school,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-founder of the cleric abuse database BishopAccountability.org.
The Vatican sent two investigators to Luján de Cuyo in 2017. Dante Simon, a judicial vicar, told the Associated Press that the allegations were “more than plausible.” He said Francis had expressed his sadness and told him “he was very worried about the situation.”
Simon recommended the maximum canonical penalty for Corradi and Corbacho: that they be made to “resign directly by the Holy Father,” the AP reported. The recommendation must be reviewed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In Argentina, the church, including Francis, has been accused of moving too slowly and of keeping Corradi in contact with vulnerable children despite years of allegations against him.
Lawyers and prosecutors say the case was extraordinarily difficult, involving hours of painstaking depositions of deaf victims, most from poor upbringings and Catholic families who had seen the church as the ultimate authority. Several victims barely understood sign language. Prosecutors say they sought a copy of the Vatican’s internal investigation into the allegations but never received a church response.
“The victory today is about justice, but also identity — about defending deaf victims who can now begin to reclaim their lives,” said Oscar Barrera, a lawyer for the Argentine victims.
In an interview with The Post in late 2018, Bishop Alberto Germán Bochatey, appointed by the pope to oversee the Provolo schools in the aftermath of the scandal, said Corradi had privately proclaimed himself innocent and felt “destroyed” by the allegations.
Bochatey accused prosecutors and victims’ lawyers of overstating the scope of the allegations. He suggested Freemasons — a fraternal order that the Catholic Church has long viewed as an adversary — were somehow behind the accusations. He did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
“We cannot understand why [the accusations] are so direct and intense,” Bochatey said in 2018. “They try to build a big case that [it was a] house of horrors, 40 or 50 cases, but there are little more than 10.”
Jorge Bordon, Corradi’s 62-year-old driver, pleaded guilty last year to 11 counts of abuse at the school. His confession effectively implicated some of the other defendants, but Corbacho and others denied the accusations. Corradi — who had been held under house arrest at an undisclosed location in Argentina — did not enter a plea.
Victims who say they were abused at another Provolo institute, in La Plata, a provincial capital 36 miles from Buenos Aires, viewed Monday’s verdict as a first, but not final, step toward justice.
“Justice, justice, justice, not only for Mendoza, but for La Plata, and Italy,” said Daniel Sgardelis, 45, who has told authorities he was sexually abused in the 1980s at the church’s Provolo institute in La Plata. “These are the first detainees, thanks to young deaf people who reported this to government authorities.”
In the northern Italian city of Verona, where Corradi worked until 1970 and had first been accused of abuse, former students who tried for years to warn the Vatican watched the verdict as it streamed live online.
One former student who says Corradi abused him, Gianni Bisoli, started to cry. Others cheered.
“Some yelled in joy,” said Giuseppe Consiglio, who handed the letter to the pope in 2015.
“[The verdict] is also a victory for Verona’s victims,” Bisoli said. “The battle goes on, as this verdict gives us more strength.”
Francis’s judgment has also been questioned in the case of Zanchetta, a bishop who stepped down in 2017 after the Holy See was reportedly informed of abuse accusations against him — only to be quickly appointed to a financial management post inside the Vatican.
Francis has known Zanchetta since they worked together in the Episcopal Conference of Argentina. Months after becoming pope, he nominated Zanchetta as bishop of Orán, a northern Argentina town not far from the Bolivian border.
Reports over the past year have portrayed Zanchetta as impulsive and aggressive. The AP, citing a former lieutenant of Zanchetta’s, said the bishop drank alcohol with seminarians and would bring one of the aspiring priests with him whenever he visited a parish. When Zanchetta announced his resignation, he attributed it to health problems.
According to the AP, the Vatican was informed as early as 2015 of alleged nude selfies on Zanchetta’s phone. Two years later, the AP reported, officials in Zanchetta’s diocese relayed a broader series of concerns, including his alleged sexual abuse inside the seminary.
Francis met with Zanchetta, who promptly stepped down as bishop of Orán. But months later, the pope appointed him to the Vatican job.
In a statement earlier this year, the Vatican said there had been “accusations of authoritarianism against him but no accusations of sexual abuse.” The Vatican said problems during Zanchetta’s tenure as bishop of Orán resulted from “his inability in governing the clergy.”
A church lawyer said Monday that Zanchetta would return to Argentina to respond to the accusations. Argentine prosecutors had alleged that Zanchetta was avoiding calls and emails. The lawyer, Javier Belda Iniesta, said Zanchetta never intended to flee.
“We are going to the airport right now,” Belda Iniesta said.
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people disciplined in the abuse of children at the Provolo schools in Verona, Italy. Four people, not 24, received some form of punishment or admonition between 2012 and 2014.
Harlan and Pitrelli reported from Rome.
Anthony Faiola is The Washington Post’s South America/Caribbean bureau chief. Since joining the paper in 1994, he has served as bureau chief in Berlin, London, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and New York. He has also covered global economics from Washington.
Chico Harlan is The Washington Post's Rome bureau chief. Previously, he was The Post’s East Asia bureau chief, covering the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan and a leadership change in North Korea. He has also been a member of The Post's financial and national enterprise teams.
Stefano Pitrelli is the Rome bureau reporter for The Washington Post.