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‘The Pope Ignored Them’: Argentinian Priests Convicted Of Sexual Abuse Of Deaf Children

His Holiness Pope Francis delivers his message during the General Audience of senior Government Officials and members of the Diplomatic Corps at the Rizal Hall of the Malacañan Palace for the State Visit and Apostolic Journey to the Republic of the Philippines on January 16, 2015.
His Holiness Pope Francis delivers his message during the General Audience of senior Government Officials and members of the Diplomatic Corps at the Rizal Hall of the Malacañan Palace for the State Visit and Apostolic Journey to the Republic of the Philippines on January 16, 2015. (Photo: Benhur Arcayan)

Another priest sexual abuse scandal has rocked the Catholic Church this time implicating officials as high up as Pope Francis.

The global sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has devastated the reputation of the Catholic Church in recent decades emerged in the Pope’s homeland last Monday, as two Argentinian priests were found guilty of systematically molesting students of a Church-run school for deaf children. The cases revealed disturbing accusations that Pope Francis ignored victims for years, calling attention to the enduring problems within the institution that represents the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Argentina Priests Convicted of Child Sexual Abuse

An Argentine court sentenced Rev. Nicola Corradi to 42 years and Rev. Horacio Corbacho to 45 years in prison last Monday, November 25 for sexually abusing children at the Antonio Provolo Institute for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Mendoza, Argentina. Gardener Armando Gómez was also sentenced to 18 years in prison.

A Washington Post investigation of “court and church documents, private letters, and dozens of interviews in Argentina and Italy,” found that “church officials up to and including Pope Francis were warned repeatedly and directly about a group of alleged predators that included Corradi,” yet took no action.

“I want Pope Francis to come here, I want him to explain how this happened, how they knew this and did nothing,” a 24-year-old alumna of the Provolo Institute told the Post, “using sign language as her hands shook in rage”. She and her 22-year-old brother were among at least 14 former students who say they were abused at the now closed facility.

As the Washington Post reported in February:

“Vulnerable to the extreme, the deaf students tended to come from poor families that fervently believed in the sanctity of the church. Prosecutors say the children were fondled, raped, sometimes tied up and, in one instance, forced to wear a diaper to hide the bleeding. All the while, their limited ability to communicate complicated their ability to tell others what was happening to them. Students at the school were smacked if they used sign language. One of the few hand gestures used by the priests, victims say, was an index figure to lips — a demand for silence.”

The Post notes that one of the priests had a long record of sexual abuse allegations: “Corradi, now 83 and under house arrest, is also under investigation for sexual crimes at a sister school in Argentina where he worked from 1970 to 1994. And alumni of a related school in Italy, where Corradi served earlier, identified him as being among a number of priests who carried out systematic abuse over five decades. The Italian victims’ efforts to sound the alarm to church authorities began in 2008 and included mailing a list of accused priests to Francis in 2014 and physically handing him the list in 2015.”

Yet the church ignored the victims until Argentine law enforcement eventually arrested the priests and shut down the school in 2016. “Argentine prosecutors say the church has not fully cooperated with their investigation,” reported the Post.

In a 2017 video by the Italian Fanpage.it Youtube channel, Priest Don Piccoli of the Provolo Institute laughs as he confesses that dozens of priests molested the deaf-mute children from poor and disadvantaged families.

“The Church has not acted honorably in this case,” Sergio Salinas, a lawyer for several victims, told the New York Times. He called for Pope Francis to “make a public apology.”

“It hasn’t just failed to give evidence, it has hidden information,” Mr. Salinas said. “It has failed to recognize the facts and has mocked the victims by not recognizing them as such and saying that their testimony is unbelievable.”

Two more trials related to cover-ups and abuse at the Provolo Institutes for deaf children are expected to take place next year. Mr. Salinas told the New York Times that he believes the number of abused children is much larger than currently known.

“We hope the prosecutors now will launch a criminal investigation of the archbishops and other church leaders who knew or should have known that the school was being run by a child molester,” Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online research database BishopAccountability.org, told the Post. “The pope too must accept responsibility for the unimaginable suffering of these children. He ignored repeated warnings that Corradi was in Argentina.”

Scale Of Catholic Church’s Abuse Problem

The Catholic Church’s centuries-long practice of enabling the sexual abuse of children is breathtaking in scope, with recent scandals erupting from Argentina and Chile to Ireland, the United States, Australia and Germany.

“As of Nov. 11, Bishop Accountability, a website that tracks accusations, has named 6,433 priests, brothers and Catholic school officials accused of abuse,” reports Lindsay Schnell with USA Today. “Additionally, 154 archdioceses and dioceses have released the names of 4,771 credibly accused clerics, according to Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota-based law firm that specializes in representing sex abuse survivors.

However that number is likely a significant understatement: “The church has drawn scrutiny from survivors’ groups for sometimes leaving known abusers off its credibly accused lists and for naming the same clergy members multiple times,” writes Schnell. “Some archdiocese and dioceses have declined to release lists. Most religious orders have not released lists, though that is slowly changing.”

“This lack of uniformity leads to more pain and anguish for survivors who don’t understand why their perpetrator didn’t make the list,” Becky Ianni, the Washington, D.C., and Virginia leader for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests told USA Today. “In fact in some cases, if there is only one allegation, the name is left off.”

“Most dioceses don’t list how many victims each perpetrator had, or when or if the allegations were reported to the authorities … and even then, it would still be self-reporting, leading to numbers we can’t trust,” she said.

Due to the lack of a strong uniform legal framework, nearly 1,700 priests and other clergy that the Catholic Church considers credibly accused of child sex abuse are living with little to no oversight from law enforcement, according to an investigation by the Associated Press published in October.

“These priests, deacons, monks and lay people now teach middle-school math. They counsel survivors of sexual assault. They work as nurses and volunteer at nonprofits aimed at helping at-risk kids. They live next to playgrounds and daycare centers. They foster and care for children,” the Associated Press reports.

“And in their time since leaving the church, dozens have committed crimes, including sexual assault and possessing child pornography, the AP analysis found.”

The Pope’s New Rule

In May, Pope Francis announced concrete new reforms to address clerical sexual abuse, such as mandatory protections for whistleblowers and victims, requirements for priests and nuns to quickly report abuses, and formalized procedures to guide internal investigations no matter the rank of the accused.

Several church watchdog groups said the changes don’t go far enough, however, because they don’t require accusations to be reported to the police and therefore trust the same internal process that has repeatedly failed victims.

“Bishops watching bishops does not work,” Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability told the Associated Press.

Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told the Washington Post that the rules fail by relying on “the very same church structures that have been receiving and routing abuse allegations for years.”

Church Spends Millions To Lobby Against Child Victim Laws

Critics argue that the Catholic Church’s efforts to block legislative reforms that would help victims and prosecutors seek justice for abuse reveal its true priority is protecting its reputation rather than protecting survivors. The Catholic Church spent $10.6 million lobbying against ‘statute of limitations’ laws, which put limits on the amount of time a victim can seek justice after abuse, in the northeastern United States over the last eight years, according to a report published in June which used data based entirely from public filings in eight states.

The report shows that the Catholic Church’s lobbying against child abuse protections increased in recent years in contrast to Pope Francis’ rhetoric about confronting the epidemic. As CBS News reported:

“In New York, for example, the Catholic Church spent $2,912,772 lobbying against the Child Victims Act, which Governor Andrew Cuomo ultimately signed into law on February 14, 2019. The act gives survivors more time to seek justice against their abusers, increasing the age at which victims are able to sue from 23 to 55.

Similarly, in Pennsylvania — where in 2018 a grand jury report detailed evidence of more than 300 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children — the Catholic Church spent $5,322,979 lobbying to keep current restrictions in place on the statute of limitations in which victims can seek criminal or civil charges against their abusers.”

Attorney Gerald Williams, a partner one of the four law firms that jointly commissioned the report, told CBS News that it is “likely that at least some of the money used by the Catholic Church to combat extending the statute of limitations for survivors came from Sunday collections from the faithful.”

“It’s hard for us to tell just from the raw numbers, but it’s likely,” Williams said. “We can’t say for certain where the money comes from. We can only say that it’s a lot of money that could be spent for more constructive purposes.”

The Vatican’s Finances

Williams’ comment on his difficulty in investigating the Vatican’s finances reflects the Catholic Church’s long history of financial opacity. Protections for religious organizations have allowed the Vatican Bank to evade the transparency requirements of other financial institutions.

“The thing about the Vatican Bank is that makes it different in my view is that it’s essentially an offshore bank in the middle of foreign country,” Gerald Posner, author of “God’s Bankers,” told NPR in 2015. “So that once the bank was formed, it meant that somebody sitting over in Italy who had a lot of money, all they had to do was find a priest or a cleric inside Vatican city to take their money in suitcases of cash across the street… deposit it in the Vatican Bank, and it no longer could be taxed.”

“It no longer could be followed by Italian authorities,” Posner continued. “It couldn’t be follower for a drug investigation. So what does that result in? It results in the Vatican Bank being one of the top banks in the world for money laundering.”

Scandals involving money laundering and the funding of priests implicated in child sex abuse have put pressure on the church to become more transparent. Posner said he was impressed by Pope Francis’ reforms of the Vatican Bank in his 2015 interview with NPR, which include external audits and closing hundreds of illegitimate accounts, but that more time would be needed to cement the changes in consideration of the bank’s history and culture.

That history includes support for Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, among other fascist regimes. The Holy See was one of the first governments to recognize the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi Party), and the Vatican Bank was created in large part to obfuscate the church’s financial dealings with the Nazis from the United States and U.K. during World War II.

“They bundled together life insurance policies of Jewish refugees who had been sent to Auschwitz and other death camps,” Posner told NPR. “They escheated these policies early on – meaning they took the cash value out of them.”

Children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were later rejected by the Vatican when they tried to collect on the insurance policies. “These insurance companies would refuse to pay out saying: ‘Show us a death certificate,’ which they knew was impossible. They would keep the money.”

“They abdicated their moral position as the head of the world’s largest religion,” Posner said, “especially at a time when they continued to make money with the people committing the murder.”

Archbishop Calls For Pope’s Resignation

Former Vatican ambassador to the United States and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church in a call for Pope Francis’ resignation in an 11-page letter last August, accusing the Pontiff of protecting a sex abuser and his network of enablers.

“I repeat it firmly before God: Pope Francis learned about McCarrick from me on Sunday 23 June 2013, 40 minutes before the Angelus,” Viganò said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I told him of McCarrick’s abuses after the pope himself, on his own initiative, asked me about McCarrick.”

In May, the Pope said he did not remember if Viganò told him about former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abuses after remaining mostly silent about the claim for nearly a year. “I don’t remember if he told me about this,” Pope Francis said in an interview. “If it’s true or not. No idea! But you know that about McCarrick, I knew nothing. If not, I wouldn’t have remained quiet, right?”

“Everybody knew about McCarrick’s lifelong predatory behavior, from the youngest seminarian in Newark to the highest-ranking prelates in the Vatican,” Viganò told the Post. McCarrick’s predatory behavior was an open secret for years in the Vatican and U.S. Church circles, according to Catholic website Crux News, as it was known that the former archbishop of Washington had long “pressured seminarians to share a bed with him” before accusations that he abused a minor finally surfaced in 2017.

“The crisis is about the fact that a corrupt ‘mafia’ has taken control of many institutions of the Church, from the top down, and is exploiting the Church and the faithful for its own immoral purposes.” – Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

In February, the Pope formerly expelled, or ‘defrocked,’ Cardinal McCarrick from the Catholic Church. Although many lower ranking priests have been defrocked for abusing minors, the episode represented the first time a Cardinal, a high-ranking Church leader, was completely expelled for sexual abuse. While some viewed Francis’ action as revolutionary, Archbishop Viganò had a different interpretation:

“Instead of a proper judicial procedure, after more than seven months of total silence, an administrative procedure was deliberately chosen,” Viganò told the Post. “It is hard to avoid concluding that the timing was designed to manipulate public opinion.”

Viganò argues that if Pope Francis was serious about fighting sexual abuse, he would confront McCarrick’s network of enablers rather than publicize the punishment of a single abuser.

“Condemning McCarrick as a scapegoat with an exemplary punishment — it was the first time in Church history that a cardinal was reduced to the lay state — would support the narrative that Pope Francis was firmly determined to fight against clergy sexual abuse.”

The Archbishop corroborated what Sergio Salinas, a lawyer for several victims in the Argentinian school for deaf children, alleged in his case: that the Pope concealed information that would help victims.

“The bottom line is this: Pope Francis is deliberately concealing the McCarrick evidence.”

The Vatican’s Deeply-Rooted Problem

Other critics have echoed the Archbishop’s criticism, arguing that the Vatican needs deeper cultural reform rather than the punishment of individual priests.

“How was McCarrick able to advance through the hierarchy, and even become an trusted adviser to Francis on international diplomacy and the selection of cardinals, when his predatory behavior was well known? Simple,” wrote the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen. “A network of corrupt bishops and cardinals, many of whom owed their positions to McCarrick, protected him. It is not enough for Pope Francis to remove McCarrick from the priesthood. The patronage network that enabled him must be rooted out as well.”

Karen Liebreich, the author of “Fallen Order: Intrigue, Heresy and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and Caravaggio,” explains that this patronage network is deeply embedded in the Vatican, with documents that allege “impure friendships with schoolboys” and “many accusations of impurity and ill-reknown” dating back to at least the 15th century. Liebreich describes how superiors in the church repeatedly worked to cover up abuses to protect their reputation, even promoting priests facing accusations rather than seek justice for victims.

“The culture that needs to be changed is the Vatican culture,” Peter Isley, an abuse victim and a founder member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told DemocracyNow last year. “And I don’t know what confidence anyone can have in this management team, that has covered up child sex crimes, and continues to cover it up around the world, that they’re somehow going to fix it. They’re not going to fix it. Somebody else needs to fix it.”

Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a co-owner Citizen Truth.

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