Pope Francis has promised not to tolerate more sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Argentine victims wish the former Buenos Aires archbishop had taken that stance years ago.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Pope Francis made headlines last month when he announced the Vatican will take a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse in the church.
In a historic move, Francis also promised to celebrate mass in Italy in June with several victims of sexual abuse, a gesture lauded for its significance in helping to overcome decades of inaction from the Vatican on an issue that has ruptured the foundation of the church.
But in the pope’s home city of Buenos Aires, these two announcements stirred a different reaction: Dozens of victims of sexual abuse in Argentina’s Catholic churches say they are still waiting for recognition of their plight from the Vatican.
Abuse victims and their representatives contacted by GlobalPost said they spent fruitless years seeking an audience with Francis when he was the highest-ranking Catholic representative in Argentina, the archbishop. They said they were turned away by his office or offered gifts in exchange for meeting with the man then known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Email requests for comment to the Vatican Information Service and the Diocese of Buenos Aires did not receive responses.
GlobalPost Exclusive: After US sex abuse scandals, an accused priest rises again in Paraguay
GlobalPost traveled to Buenos Aires to meet with two victims of alleged sexual abuse, a lawyer who has represented dozens of victims in Argentina, and the mother of a boy who alleges he was abused when he was 14 years old by a priest in Buenos Aires Province.
They expressed a mixture of resignation, anger, scorn and relief that the Vatican has finally begun to take the issue of abuse in the Catholic Church seriously.
We asked each of the people we spoke with to record their own personal video message to Pope Francis.
Here are their stories.
1. Julieta Añazco, abuse victim:
Añazco has been fighting for years to bring her case in front of the Catholic authorities. In January, she and 18 other victims wrote a letter to the Vatican describing their complaints against Rev. Ricardo Gimenez, a priest in La Plata, in eastern Buenos Aires Province.
That letter has never received a response, Añazco said.
Añazco alleges she was abused by Gimenez as a girl. Gimenez was arrested for child abuse in 1996, but was released in 1997. He is still a priest in Buenos Aires and maintains his innocence, claiming those who have accused him have been possessed by demons.
Here is Añazco’s message to Pope Francis:
2. Sebastian Cuattromo, abuse victim:
Unlike Añazco, Cuattromo received the justice he had hoped for.
Fernando Enrique Picchiochi, the priest who abused Cuattromo when he was a teenager, was hunted down and extradited from the United States in 2010. He’s currently serving a 12-year prison term in Argentina.
Cuattromo is extremely active in organizing victims of sexual abuse in Argentina via his organization, Adultxs por los derechos de la infancia. While his case was being investigated in the mid-2000s, he sought help from then-Cardinal Bergoglio.
After meeting with Bergoglio’s assistant several times, but never with the cardinal himself, Cuattromo said he was left with the impression that Argentina’s Catholic leaders, including the man who is now pope, did not take abuse by priests seriously.
“I had no doubt of their message: That sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church in Buenos Aires just wasn’t a big deal,” Cuattromo said.
Here is his message to Pope Francis:
3. Beatriz Varela, mother of abuse victim:
The scars of the abuse allegedly suffered by Varela’s son Gabriel Ferrini are evident in the way his mother tells the tale of her little boy’s experience.
Tears streaming down her face, Varela recalled the night in 2002 that her son appeared, distraught, at the front door at 2 a.m., hours after she had left him with a local priest, Ruben Pardo, who had promised to help the boy with spiritual teaching.
Her son said he had been molested by Pardo. Varela immediately complained to Pardo’s bishop in Buenos Aires, but she says her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Incensed at the lack of action by church authorities, Varela visited then-Cardinal Bergoglio’s offices in an impromptu attempt to seek justice. She says she was belittled by Bergoglio’s staff and ultimately forcibly removed by security.
Varela and her son successfully sued the church, but she says she still lives with the awful thoughts of what happened to her child and many others at the hands of Pardo, who died in 2005 while still under investigation.
At first, Varela said she had “nothing to say” to Pope Francis. After some urging, she recorded this message:
4. Ernesto Moreau, co-president of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, Buenos Aires:
The high-profile case caused uproar in this Catholic country, and in 2007 Sasso was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Moreau said that in the course of the Sasso case, he and several of the families he represented sought to meet with Cardinal Bergoglio. They were urged to be patient and have faith, and were given gifts of rosaries “blessed by” then-Pope John Paul II, he said.
Moreau said Francis’ latest announcements are a positive step for the Vatican. The pope is ultimately just one man in a vast organization, he said, and even with the best will in the world, it can take years to turn around an organization plagued by inaction and dogma.
He had a personal message and plea for the pope:
Mother and baby homes were where young women who had conceived out of wedlock were sent to have their babies. They usually spent up to three years, more in some instances, working at the home after which the child was put up for adoption.
The publication in May 1996 of “Eileen’s” story inThe Irish Times followed an announcement the previous month by then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Dick Spring that files on the adoption of Irish babies in the U.S. had been found. It was said this offered hope that birth mothers and adopted children taken from them could meet again.
Very little has happened where the issue is concerned since then.
Even the deeply moving story of Philomena Lee, as recounted in the filmPhilomena last year, did not stir the national conscience to action. Even the Tuam story did not take fire immediately, when it broke two weeks ago.
Then it may well be the case that the Irish public is punch drunk with revelations of shocking abuses of children from the past. Since 2005 there have been four statutory reports into abuses of children in church-run institutions and parishes, as well as the 2013 report on the abuse of women in Magdalene laundries.
What finally stirred the somnolent were the figures 796 (for dead children at St. Mary’s in Tuam, County Galway between 1925 and 1961) and the two words `septic tank.’
The image of children being disposed of in such a barbaric and depraved manner outraged people across the world. Those two words “septic tank” meant the story went viral.
At the Sean Ross Abbey home where Philomena Lee had been, the mortality rate for 120 babies born there in 1930 was up to 50 percent.
That there may be doubt as to whether the remains of children were so discarded has become secondary, as attention has now shifted to the main issue, the homes themselves and the mothers and children who had been in them.
According to the 2009 Ryan report, which investigated abuses of children in orphanages, reformatories, and industrial schools in Ireland: “In the 1920s and 30s the policy was implemented of providing ‘mother and baby’ homes for unmarried women who were having children for the first time. These were reserved for young mothers who had ‘fallen’ once only and thus were likely to be ‘influenced towards a useful and respectable life.’”
According to a 1928 Department of Local Government report in Dublin, “about eight ‘mother and child’ homes were set up for unmarried mothers giving birth for the first time. In 1922 the Sacred Heart Home in Bessboro, County Cork, managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, was opened. Similar homes were established by the same Order in Roscrea, County Tipperary, in 1930 and Castlepollard, County Meath, in 1935.”
It continued: “The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul opened a similar institution on the Navan Road, in Dublin, in 1918 and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd opened a home in Dunboyne, County Meath, in 1955. In addition, three special homes were provided by local authorities themselves in Tuam, County Galway, Kilrish, County Clare and Pelletstown in County Dublin.”
The Protestant-run Bethany Home was set up in Dublin in 1921 and closed in 1972.
The woman interviewed for The Irish Times in 1996 had been in Castlepollard, one of the largest mother and baby homes in Ireland.
The Adoption Rights Now group estimates that 2,800 to 3,000 babies were born at Castlepollard, while its graveyard “contains at least 300 to upwards of 500 bodies.” Mortality rates there were “at least 10.7 percent to 16.7 percent over its 35-year lifespan.” It was set up in 1934.
It has been claimed that at any one time there were up to 200 girls/mothers at Castlepollard. According to Mike Millotte’s book Banished Babies, 278 children from Castlepollard were adopted to the U.S.
Research by Warwick University Professor Maria Luddy at the Sean Ross Abbey home in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where Philomena Lee had been, showed that the mortality rate for 120 babies born there in 1930 was up to 50 percent.
Figures for Bessborough in Cork show the home had a mortality rate of 55 per cent in one of the years between 1945 to 1948, according to records by Dr. James Deeny, Ireland’s then chief medical officer.
“Eileen” said in that May 1996 Irish Times article that she was told by a nun on arrival at Castlepollard, “Your name is Vera while you are here.” She was there nearly three months before the baby was born. Her letters were opened and she “wasn’t allowed to breastfeed” her baby. She was made to express her milk into a container “at night” for feeding the child.
Of signing adoption papers she said, “I knew I was signing the baby away but I was terrified not to sign it. I remember my hand was trembling and I think it was the cruellest thing.”
She recalled that before her baby was taken, “I didn’t sleep that night. I remember getting up and going in to bathe him and dress him. I remember the little beige coat and the little bit of velvet on the collar, brown shoes and beige socks.”
A nun “just said to me, kiss and goodbye now, and she just whipped him away. I ran up to a window to try to see him, I was almost getting out the window. But I couldn’t see. All I could hear was the engine of the car. I kept listening until I couldn’t hear it any longer. Afterwards … there was nothing.”
For more coverage, consult The Irish Times.
Patsy McGarry is the Religious Affairs Correspondent for The Irish Times.
The bodies of 796 children, between the ages of two days and nine years old, have been found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway. They died between 1925 and 1961 in a mother and baby home under the care of the Bon Secours nuns.
Locals have known about the grave since 1975, when two little boys, playing, broke apart the concrete slab covering it and discovered a tomb filled with small skeletons. A parish priest said prayers at the site, and it was sealed once more, the number of bodies below unknown, their names forgotten.
The Tuam historian Catherine Corless discovered the extent of the mass grave when she requested records of children’s deaths in the home. The registrar in Galway gave her almost 800. Shocked, she checked 100 of these against graveyard burials, and found only one little boy who had been returned to a family plot. The vast majority of the children’s remains, it seemed, were in the septic tank. Corless and a committee have been working tirelessly to raise money for a memorial that includes a plaque bearing each child’s name.
For those of you unfamiliar with how, until the 1990s, Ireland dealt with unmarried mothers and their children, here it is: the women were incarcerated in state-funded, church-run institutions called mother and baby homes or Magdalene asylums, where they worked to atone for their sins. Their children were taken from them.
According to Corless, death rates for children in the Tuam mother and baby home, and in similar institutions, were four to five times that of the general population. A health board report from 1944 on the Tuam home describes emaciated, potbellied children, mentally unwell mothers and appalling overcrowding. But, as Corless points out, this was no different to other homes in Ireland. They all had the same mentality: that these women and children should be punished.
Ireland knows all this. We know about the abuse women and children suffered at the hands of the clergy, abuse funded by a theocratic Irish state. What we didn’t know is that they threw dead children into unmarked mass graves. But we’re inured to these revelations by now.
Corless expresses surprise that the media were so slow to report her story, that people didn’t seem to care. If two children were found in an unmarked grave, she observes, it would be news; what about 800? But what is the difference between the wall of lies, denial and secrecy the church constructed to protect its paedophile priests and a concrete slab over the bodies of 796 children neglected to death by nuns? Good people unearth these evil truths, but the church always survives.
The archbishop of Tuam and the head of the Irish Bon Secours sisters will soon meet to discuss the memorial and service planned at the site. The Bon Secours sisters have donated what the Irish TV station RTÉ describes as “a small sum” to the children’s graveyard committee.
Father Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archediocese, says: “I suppose we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. All we can do is mark it appropriately and make sure there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died.”
Let’s not judge the past on our morals, then, but on the morals of the time. Was it OK, in mid-20th century Ireland, to throw the bodies of dead children into sewage tanks? Monaghan is really saying: “don’t judge the past at all”. But we must judge the past, because that is how we learn from it.
Monaghan is correct that we need to mark history appropriately. That’s why I am offering the following suggestions as to what the church should do to in response:
Do not say Catholic prayers over these dead children. Don’t insult those who were in life despised and abused by you. Instead, tell us where the rest of the bodies are. There were homes throughout Ireland, outrageous child mortality rates in each. Were the Tuam Bon Secours sisters an anomalous, rebellious sect? Or were church practices much the same the country over? If so, how many died in each of these homes? What are their names? Where are their graves? We don’t need more platitudinous damage control, but the truth about our history.