Gonzalo Elizondo and Pablo Vio are two 32-year-old friends who attended Colegio del Salvador, a century-old educational institution run by the Catholic religious order of the Jesuits in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s the same school where Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, used to teach. Elizondo and Vio remained friends after they graduated, but it took them almost 20 years to realize that they shared a painful memory. Both were sexually abused by the same teacher, Brother César Fretes, when they were 11 years old. When they broke their silence and began seeking answers, they discovered that Fretes had victimized dozens of students: the latest count is 42.
Fretes died in 2015 without ever facing justice. School officials acknowledge the sexual abuse, but have refused to offer a public apology or financial compensation for the victims. Nor have they heeded the victims’ demands that those in charge of the school at the time face sanctions. “There were many adults who didn’t do what they were supposed to do. They neglected and abandoned us. They knew that there was a predator, and all they did was move him somewhere else and cover it up,” said Vio in a joint interview with Elizondo for EL PAÍS.
Vio and Elizondo say that Fretes abused them in 2002 when he was their sixth grade teacher, but they didn’t tell anyone and tried to forget. A year later, the school suddenly transferred the Jesuit more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away. Rumors of sexual abuse spread among the students. Elizondo began to rethink the incident at a spiritual retreat the year before when he woke up in the middle of the night and felt Fretes’ hand down his pants. “He told me that I was sleepwalking and that he had led me back to the room, but I never sleepwalked,” said Elizondo. “When I heard the rumors, I realized that that he was actually molesting me.” But since Fretes had already been transferred out, he decided to keep quiet.
Vio took longer to realize he had been abused because he lacked the tools to understand it when he was growing up. Back then, they didn’t teach sex education in school, now a mandatory course. Many students didn’t know how to act or what to think when Fretes raised sexual topics in class. “He was grooming us little by little,” said Vio. “One day in his office, he asked me to pull down my pants. He touched my penis, ran his hands over my body, and asked me to compare myself in the locker room with my classmates, and then to tell him about it,” he recalls. “I even thought at the time that I was lucky to have someone to teach me about these things. No one had ever told me that this was wrong.”
Elizondo first approached school officials in 2019 about the abuse. Three years later, Vio and dozens of other victims have joined his cause. But they are frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the institution, which has refused to talk to the media claiming that it has already apologized to the school community and has taken measures to prevent more abuse.
“We are ashamed”
“First, we ask again for the forgiveness of those who suffered what they should not have suffered at this school. We are ashamed. We are deeply sorry. That is why we are publicly asking for your forgiveness,” says a letter sent earlier in August to the school community. The letter was co-signed by the current rector, Jorge Black, and the rector in 2003, Rafael Velasco. “The school leaders and the Society of Jesus did what they thought was best at the time, which was to remove the accused man from his position and protect students from further harm,” said the letter in reference to their decision to send Fretes to the city of Mendoza in western Argentina.
Although he was theoretically forbidden to have contact with minors, Fretes returned to the school on occasion and participated in student activities until he was finally expelled from the Society of Jesus in 2007, supposedly as a result of an internal investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse.
“They won’t let us see the expulsion document. We know that there was no investigation because they didn’t talk to any of us,” said Vio. The victims also claim that the school knew about two complaints of abuse even before the allegations in 2003 that led to his transfer to Mendoza.
The first allegation was made in 1998, just a year after Fretes, who was never ordained a priest, joined the teaching staff. “A family went to the rector, Luis de Maussion, saying that their son had been abused by Fretes. De Maussion dismissed their story and decided to keep Fretes in his position,” according to a timeline of abuse painstakingly developed from victim testimonies. The second allegation was made in 2001, when a sixth grader told Rector Velasco about Fretes’ attempt to molest him. “The rector not only dismissed his testimony, but publicly called the boy a liar in front of his classmates.”
A Pope’s silence
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Pope Francis, is a Jesuit who taught at Colegio del Salvador in the mid-1960s. When Elizondo heard the Pope denounce pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church, he wrote a letter to the Vatican in 2020 asking for the pontiff’s help. He never received a reply. “He’s protecting them. Acknowledging the abuse would mean ending that protection,” said Vio.
After several fruitless years of struggle, the former students are very critical of the Jesuit-run Colegio del Salvador and the entire Catholic Church hierarchy. “The Church’s objective is to wear us down until we get tired and forget about it all. That way they can keep covering it up and pretending that nothing ever happened. If the Pope were to speak up about this, no one could turn a blind eye anymore. But it’s not going to happen,” said Vio.