On January 16, a United Nations’ panel of human rights experts questioned Vatican representatives on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the main international treaty ensuring minors’ rights. During the day-long interrogation, the committee’s members — all independent experts — accused the Holy See of adopting policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children over several decades, charges to which the Vatican’s representatives avoided responding directly. The panel subsequently released a report urging Pope Francis to open Vatican files on the pederasts and the churchmen who concealed their crimes, and hand them over to the courts.
Victims’ organizations around the world have welcomed the UN’s initiative, but most point out that individual pain cannot be cured with a report. Men and women who have been sexually abused by people in positions of trust have often spent their lives living with a terrible secret, as well as feelings of guilt. Those who dared to speak out have largely been ignored, as well as being put under pressure to remain silent by the Roman Catholic Church.
The victims are fighting not just for the sex offenders to be brought to justice, but also those who systematically protected these criminals. The blanket of silence thrown over the issue has added to their suffering. As early as 1962, the Vatican ordered all Catholic Church members to say nothing about sexual abuse, under threat of ex-communication. Over the years, the Holy See has pressured Catholics who knew about abuse to say nothing.
Complaints were often dealt with by transferring priests to other dioceses, or even abroad. In the United States, churches paid out millions of dollars in hush money. In many other cases, pressure from the Church, or fear of the resulting publicity, were sufficient to prevent victims of sexual abuse from speaking out. There are no exact figures on the number of such cases around the world. The Vatican, which has accepted and expressed its sorrow over the child abuse that has taken place among its ranks, has nevertheless refused to provide any information that would help to assess the scale of the problem.
EL PAÍS has talked to a number of victims who overcame their fear, and have spoken out about their experiences to the UN panel. They discuss the impact of abuse on their lives, and their feelings about the UN’s decision to confront the Vatican. For them, there is no undoing the damage they have suffered, and they say that their goal is to put the priests who abused them — and the people who protected them — behind bars. “The only way that the Church can redeem itself is for the Vatican to be judged by an external court,” says Joaquín Aguilar, a 34-year-old lawyer living in Mexico City who was sexually abused by a priest when he was aged 13.
The priest who abused Aguilar continues to deliver Mass. The Vatican announced his expulsion from the priesthood, but Aguilar says he has the support of his diocese. Other priests allow him to lead Mass in their churches from time to time, as well as giving him the proceedings from their collection boxes. The priest’s name is Nicolás Aguilar, and victims’ associations accuse him of abusing more than 200 children. “He has led a criminal life with total impunity thanks to the protection of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities,” says Aguilar.
Joaquín Aguilar was aged 13 when he was raped. For several weeks afterwards, he did not attend his local church, where he was a choirboy. Eventually, the priest went to his school. “I told him that I was not going to back to the church, and that I was going to tell my parents,” he explains. But the priest accused the church’s sexton of abusing the minor. “My family was going to report the sexton, and I had to tell the truth,” says Aguilar. The local government office where his parents filed the complaint in 1994 offered the family money to drop the case. “They were acting in connivance with the Church,” he explains.
Joaquín Aguilar, who works for an association for abuse victims, says the UN’s stance on child abuse by members of the Roman Catholic Church is a major step forward, but that more needs to be done. Several organizations in Mexico are exploring the possibility of bringing a case before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, saying that the Vatican is guilty of crimes of state.
Father Aguilar was transferred to Los Angeles, where he was accused of abusing 26 other children. The US authorities have issued a warrant for his arrest. But in Mexico, where he has already accumulated accusations from 90 families for abusing their children, he seems safe. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, has protected the priest.
Joaquín Aguilar says the civil authorities in Mexico have repeatedly tried to get him to drop his case, despite the UN’s demand for action from the Vatican and Church authorities around the world. “They have pressured me, they have lost my files, and they have questioned me very aggressively. It has been a tough time,” he says.
Twenty years on, Joaquín Aguilar says he will not drop his case, even though he no longer believes that the authorities in Mexico will do anything: “In this country, a priest is respected more than the mayor, which has contributed to the high levels of abuse. The majority of Nicolás’s crimes have long since fallen within the remit of the statute of limitations, and nobody is looking for him.”
Still receiving therapy for his trauma, Joaquín Aguilar says he will continue to fight for justice. “So many lives have been ruined,” he says.
Graham Wilmer tried to bring his abuser to court after three decades, but failed. He says that nevertheless, he found the experience helped him on a personal level.
Wilmer was aged 14 when his life changed forever. In September 1966, a 21-year-old teacher called Hubert Madley joined Salesian School, a Roman Catholic high school in Chertsey, on the outskirts of London, which Graham attended. For the next two years, Madley would sexually abuse Wilmer “as often and wherever he could.” It took 40 years for Madley to be brought to trial, although he was eventually let off on a technicality.
Wilmer was, and remains, deeply religious. He kept quiet about the abuse, until the death of a close friend in 1968 forced him to make a decision: he would not be able to take communion at the funeral, given that, as a devout Catholic, he was in mortal sin. He told the school authorities what had happened, but their response was simply to transfer Madley to another school, and tell Wilmer to tell nobody else. As he says in his book, Conspiracy of Faith, this caused him as much harm, if not more, as the abuse itself.
Wilmer kept silent about the matter, burying it. He married and had four children, while developing a career as a freelance writer. But in 1997, as his eldest son was about to go to university, he says that he broke down, and everything came flooding back. The crisis prompted him to go to the police, who began an investigation, before closing it in 2001 due to a lack of evidence, as well as the refusal of Salesian School to cooperate.
But Wilmer persisted, and contacted Madley, who in a series of letters and telephone conversations said he was sorry if he had hurt Wilmer, but insisted that Wilmer and he had been lovers. The admission of having had sex with a minor was enough for Wilmer to bring a civil case against him in 2004.
But the judge overseeing the trial dismissed the telephone recordings as inadmissible, and then closed the case on the grounds that as Hubert Madley had been psychologically affected by the accusations against him, the police should have interviewed him in the presence of a responsible adult. Wilmer’s fight was to some extent vindicated in 2005, when he was awarded an OBE for his work in helping children who had been victims of sexual abuse.
Wilmer says he is skeptical that the Vatican will root out pederasts among the Roman Catholic priesthood. “The Roman Catholic Church is simply doing a whitewash,” he says. “The Church is not sorry for what some of its members have done, or because it wants to help the victims of sexual abuse, but simply because it is under pressure, and for its own interests.”
Miguel Hurtado, who was abused by a priest when he was 16, did not manage to bring his case to court because the statute of limitations had passed. He says he was doubly damaged by the Church’s collusion in covering up what happened.
Hurtado used to feel safe in the Church. Until he was 16, that is, when the priest who led a youth club in his parish sexually abused him. “It was a terrible shock. I come from a very Catholic family, and had never expected anything like this,” he says. Confused and feeling guilty, he decided to talk to another priest he felt he could trust. He needed advice and to talk about what had happened. But the priest tried to play down the incident. “He said he would talk to his superior, and that the priest would be given a warning, but that I should continue going to the youth club. He also told me it would be better not to mention to my parents what had happened, because it would only upset them,” he says.
Now aged 31, Hurtado is a psychiatrist, working at a London hospital, and is prepared to talk about what happened to him 15 years ago. “The priest took advantage of my situation — I was going through a difficult time — and abused me,” he explains. To begin with, he says that he kept the matter from his parents, but ended up feeling he couldn’t bear the secret any longer. “Eventually, I told my parents. They are very religious, and they immediately contacted the priest’s superior. He simply told my mother that he would have the priest moved to another diocese, and thanked her for making what he said was the right decision not to bring charges.”
Eight years after the event, aged 22, and “stronger and independent,” as he describes himself, he decided to bring the matter before the courts, only to discover that the case had fallen foul of the statute of limitations. “We reached an out-of-court settlement with the diocese to cover the costs of therapy,” he says. The Church paid 7,500 euros. “We didn’t want any more; we didn’t want them accusing us of going after money,” he says. Following the deal, which meant agreeing to say nothing more about the matter, Hurtado says he got on with his life. But a few years afterwards, after reading about a case in the United States involving a priest who had abused dozens of children over several years, he decided to find out more about the priest who had taken advantage of him. “I discovered that he had published a book about his work with young people, and that he hadn’t been kept away from children at all. That was when I decided that if we didn’t report him, he would simply keep on abusing other young people.”
Hurtado says he felt relieved to give testimony before the UN panel that was looking into the way that the Vatican had handled child abuse among its ranks. “For the first time I felt that I wasn’t being questioned. They were perfectly open about it. I discovered that the most damaging aspect of things wasn’t so much the abuse itself, but the way that it had been covered up.” He believes that the UN’s tough line in demanding that the Vatican hand over sex offenders will prompt the civil authorities in many countries to take up the challenge of pursuing these crimes. So far, the Roman Catholic Church has responded by saying the UN is attacking religious freedom, a position that doesn’t surprise Hurtado. “Often it is the victims who — even if, like me, they no longer believe in God — behave in a much more Christian-like way toward Church officials. They, on the other hand, behave like the Pharisees.”
Mark Crawford was abused for seven years by a priest who was friends with his parents. He believes that the Roman Catholic Church is still unprepared to face up to what some of its priests have done, and is still protecting them.
His nightmare began 37 years ago on a night train headed for Colorado. He was 13 when Father Kenneth Martin, a priest based in Bayonne, New Jersey, and a close friend of his parents, sexually abused him. For the next seven years, the priest continued to do so, several times a week.
Eventually, Crawford decided to bring the matter out in the open. “One day I told the deacon at my church. He sent me to see the bishop, who should have informed the police. Instead, he told me to see a psychotherapist, who it turned out worked with many of the priests in the diocese. The man who abused me was eventually promoted to personal secretary of Bishop Theodor McCarrick, even though he knew what had happened,” says Crawford.
Now aged 59, Crawford is a senior manager at an airline, and also runs SNAP, which works with the victims of sexual abuse by priests. He says that the UN report is “necessary and important,” but that it will change nothing. “The Church isn’t about to implement change,” he explains. “We see that it continues to protect priests accused of abuse, it continues to lie, and allow predators near children.”
Faced with his local diocese’s refusal to act, Crawford went to a lawyer. “The local church wanted to buy my silence. But I kept turning down the money. In the end we reached an agreement whereby I agreed not to pursue the matter any further, as long as the man who abused me was expelled from the Church,” he says.
But the Newark diocese did not keep its end of the deal. Martin only retired from the priesthood in 2002, when a series of abuse scandals hit the headlines in New Jersey. While he is no longer able to deliver Mass, Martin remains a member of the Catholic Church. Crawford has managed to overcome the stigma of being an abuse victim; his younger brother, who was also sexually abused by Martin, hasn’t: “He has a lot of psychological problems, and he has never gotten over what happened to him. It destroyed him,” he says.