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Twenty victims of pedophilia denounce the Society of Jesus of Bolivia for covering up rapes

The plaintiffs, who suffered abuse between 1973 and 1995 in several schools run by the order, consider that these are crimes against humanity and that there is no statute of limitations on them

Violaciones Compañía de Jesús de Bolivia
A woman enters the door of the Church of La Merced, in La Paz, BoliviaJuan Karita (AP)
Julio Núñez

A pedophilia scandal is cornering the Society of Jesus in Bolivia. Half a year after the publication of the diary of the late Spanish Jesuit priest Alfonso Pedrajas, in which he admitted to having abused dozens of Bolivian children while his superiors looked the other way — and which triggered a series of accusations against a dozen priests in the Latin American country — a group of victims on Tuesday brought legal action against the Roman Catholic organization for covering up the abuse, for protecting pedophile clerics and for silencing the victims.

The plaintiffs, former students at several Jesuit-run schools who suffered sexual assaults between 1972 and 1995, had already independently brought complaints against their attackers months ago. Now, they have filed a class action suit against the current provincial of the religious order in Bolivia, Bernardo Mercado, “as the highest authority” of the institution. The plaintiffs are accusing the Society of Jesus of being the author “by omission” of the crimes of rape of minors, since for years officials were aware of the sexual abuse that was going on and did nothing to stop it. This is the first class action complaint by victims against the order in Bolivia.

Although the Bolivian penal code indicates that pedophilia crimes expire four years after the victim has reached the age of majority, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, José Luis Gareca, argues that the cases of pedophilia committed by the Jesuits and their cover-up are “crimes against humanity,” which have no statute of limitations as per the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of the United Nations. “Article 7 of this statute establishes that crimes against humanity must have been committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack and must be directed against a civilian population, as happened in the case of the plaintiffs,” says Gareca.

The complaint, filed in the Cochabamba Prosecutor’s Office, is based on the investigation that this newspaper carried out on the diary that Pedrajas, known among his students as “Pica,” wrote between 1964 and 2006. In its pages he wrote repentantly about the sexual assaults he had committed against at least 85 children and how several senior officials of his order looked the other way when he told them what he had done. He also explained that they protected him when several victims reported the abuses they suffered.

Some of these former provincials (the highest position of the Jesuit order in Bolivia) are Ramón Alaix and Marcos Recolons, both Spaniards who, like Pedrajas, traveled to Bolivia as missionaries. Recolons, in addition to being a close friend of Pedrajas, as noted in his diary, held a high position in the Vatican between 2004 and 2008. In total there were seven superiors and a dozen other clerics who, according to the memoirs of Pedrajas, covered up the crimes.

The original story about Pedrajas was followed by other reports of new victims who accused other Spanish Jesuits of pedophilia at several schools, but mainly at the Juan XXIII school of Cochabamba, where Pedrajas was the principal for two decades and where more of his victims have surfaced. But there were other schools in Oruro, Santa Cruz and Sucre. In some of these cases, those affected said that they told various officials and superiors of the order about what was going on, but that, far from being listened to, they were threatened and punished. The accused Jesuits are Antonio Gausset (a deceased Spaniard), Luis Tó (a deceased Spaniard who in 1992 was transferred to Bolivia after a conviction for abusing a girl in Barcelona), Alejandro Mestre (a deceased Spaniard who became archbishop of La Paz and president of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference), Jorge Vila (a deceased Spaniard and founder of the humanitarian association DNI), Lucho Roma (a deceased Spaniard), Carlos Villamil (a deceased Bolivian and deputy principal at Juan XXIII), Francisco Pifarré (who also served as principal at Juan XXIII) and Francesc Peris (a Spaniard who taught at Juan XXIII in 1983, also accused of abusing girls in Barcelona until 2005). The Jesuit order, both in Bolivia and in Spain, never reported the cases to the authorities when these were first brought to their attention.

The group of victims recalls in the complaint that the Society of Jesus itself has acknowledged in several statements published in recent months that it knew about these abuses and that it did nothing about it. “We recognize that, in the past, some actions in this regard have not corresponded to the dimension of the crime perpetrated. For this reason we must ask for forgiveness. But it would be useless to recognize it if we do not act now to meet the circumstances,” says one of these statements. The first action by Jesuit leaders was to provisionally remove eight priests who held the position of provincial: five who held the position during the years in which Pedrajas committed the abuses, and another three who did so after his death. The Society of Jesus states that there is an ongoing internal investigation into all such cases of abuse.

For the plaintiffs, says their lawyer, the silence imposed by the order and the impunity with which the pedophiles acted “has given rise to an institutional conduct of criminal permissiveness” in which hundreds of children fell “into the clutches of sexual predators and pedophiles who took it upon themselves to write diaries, take photos and film their victims.” They also emphasize that civil justice “can in no way be replaced by the canonical law” that to date the Church uses to internally manage many of these cases, and where the aggressors typically purge “‘their errors’ via confessions and transfers to new locations to evade criminal sanctions.”

Several investigations underway

The tsunami caused by the publication of the Pica case forced the Bolivian Episcopal Conference to launch a general investigation of past cases of pedophilia. The Bolivian president, Luis Arce, wrote to Pope Francis requesting from the Vatican all the files on cases of pedophilia committed by clerics in Bolivian territory. This request is still waiting to be fulfilled. In May, Arce also presented a bill in the Bolivian Legislative Assembly to eliminate the statute of limitations on pedophilia crimes and to create a truth commission to investigate all past cases. This initiative is still undergoing parliamentary processing. Meanwhile, the Bolivian Senate has created another investigative committee exclusively focused on cases of pedophilia by members of the cloth in that country.

The Bolivian Prosecutor’s Office is still investigating both the attacks committed by Pedrajas and those reported in recent months. Prosecutors already have a copy of the diary and internal documentation of the Society of Jesus that was found after the police searched several offices of the order in La Paz, where its headquarters and some of its offices are located.

EL PAÍS launched an investigation into pedophilia in the Spanish Church in 2018 and has an updated database with all known cases. If you know of any case that has not seen the light, you can write to us at: abusos@elpais.es. If it is a case in Latin America, the address is: abusosamerica@elpais.es.

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