An ex-Marine processes war trauma, uncovers memories of abuse at a Catholic school in Spain

José Luis Pereda says he was a victim of pederasty at a Spanish boarding center. Traumatized by his experiences in Iraq and Somalia, he buried his early recollection of sexual violence for decades, but now he’s finally speaking out

José Luis Pereda
José Luis Pereda at Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brooklyn, New York on June 4.Lucia Vazquez
Paola Nagovitch

José Luis Pereda served as a US Marine for 13 years. Between 1990 and 2003, he deployed to three wars: in the Persian Gulf, in Somalia and in Iraq. He often talks about the “switch” that happens when you become a soldier — it’s an internal switch, he says, one that everyone who enlists in the armed forces learns to turn on, to become a “lethal weapon,” and then later, after years of service, must somehow learn to turn off, to reintegrate into society. Pereda says he’s a serious person, and is quick to admit that he can sometimes be prone to violence. “For me, any conflict or disagreement can easily turn into a full-on fucking battle,” he says. He attributes this attitude to his training, to the experiences he was subjected to, and to the residual trauma left over after so many years in the Marine Corps. In fact, like many former soldiers, Pereda suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress as a result of the violence and trauma he experienced on the battlefield — a disorder that eventually led him to seek therapy.

Now, after two decades immersed in the hell of war, the 55-year-old ex-Marine has realized that his trauma and rage have even deeper origins, stretching back to his childhood. Specifically, from when Pereda was nine years old and was sent to live at Corazón de María, a private boarding school in Zamora, Spain run by the Claretians, a congregation of the Catholic Church. Pereda says that during his time at the school, a priest named “Father Félix” repeatedly subjected him to sexual and other physical abuse during the academic years of 1976 and 1978.

Pereda kept these memories a secret for more than five decades. Last December, when he learned that EL PAÍS was conducting an investigation into pederasty in the Spanish Catholic Church, he decided to reach out and tell his story to the world. Months later, in April, he was finally able to recount his experience out loud for the first time. “I’ve dealt with my post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, but the problems of my childhood haven’t been dealt with,” Pereda told EL PAÍS during his first interview. “And that anger is still alive in me, still out of control. I haven’t fully healed.” Pereda describes himself as “a war veteran, a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a survivor of pederasty in the Catholic Church.” His story is one of hundreds collected in EL PAÍS’s second report on pederasty in the Spanish Catholic Church and delivered to the Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE) this June. The report includes 278 new testimonies, accusing a total of 244 individuals of child sexual abuse (including 44 alleged perpetrators previously denounced by other victims).

Like many victims of sexual violence, for decades, Pereda suffered in silence: “I thought that if I told someone, they’d just tell me I had asked for it.” He didn’t want to think about it, because he thought that if he remembered the details, he would realize that it had all been his fault. Pereda buried the incidents. He says it felt as if those memories of abuse were someone else’s memories. But now he knows they were not. They are his memories, preserved for decades in a deep corner of his mind — sharp, intact, vivid. “It’s as if those years were frozen in time,” he says. When he talks about the abuse, and his old life in Zamora, he switches from English to Spanish. It takes him a few minutes to find the words, but then he picks up the rhythm and the story flows out of him.

Pereda was born in New York in 1967, but when he was seven years old, his father, who was Spanish in origin, moved the family to Zamora, a small city in northwest Spain. There, his father enrolled him in Corazón de María, a Catholic boarding school run by the Claretian Missionaries. With his father sick and no longer married, in 1976 Pereda and his two brothers were placed in the boarding school full-time, and would even stay through summer vacation, when most of the other children returned to their families.

That first summer, Pereda recalls, is when the abuse began: “One day, my little brother and I got up early and went for a walk around the school grounds. When we returned to the dormitory, we ran into Father Félix.” The brothers greeted him, says Pereda, but then the priest just “exploded”: “He started hitting me and demanding that I come to his office,” Pereda remembers, adding that his brother managed to get away as Father Félix continued to beat him. Once in Father Félix’s office, Pereda describes how the priest asked him to take off his pants and underwear: “I wouldn’t stop crying, he was threatening to hit me more, so I did what he asked. Then he yanked my penis brutally hard and jerked me around at the same time he held my penis and tried to slap my face some more,” Pereda says.

The abuse continued, and Pereda was attacked by the priest “at least half a dozen times,” until he finally left the school in 1978. “On one occasion, he abused me in a small office he had under the stairs of the dormitory, which he used to make announcements over the loudspeaker,” Pereda says. “That time he used one of the rackets we had for playing racquetball. He didn’t try to penetrate me with it — that would have been impossible — but he pushed it against my private parts. He would shove it hard against my crotch or my anus, depending on which direction he wanted me to be looking.” If Pereda tried to resist the abuse, the priest “would get furious” and hit him “so hard that I would lose my balance.” Pereda recalls how Father Félix would make him “stand there naked, exposed, humiliated. He would start hitting me and then grabbing me. I was just a kid, and he was a brute.”

El claretiano acusado de abuso sexual
A school video from the 1970s showing the accused Claretian priest as he officiates Mass.

Pereda doesn’t remember Father Félix’s last name — but he remembers his face. He recognized it in a school video from the 1970s that he found online. EL PAÍS verified that another student also identified the accused priest by the name Father Félix, in a post shared on a Facebook group of former Corazón de María students, which also noted that the priest went by the nickname “Cruyff,” possibly because of his resemblance to the Dutch soccer player and manager Johan Cruyff. According to Pereda, Father Félix’s title was “prefect of discipline.” EL PAÍS contacted the Claretian Missionaries of the Province of Santiago by phone, requesting comment, and a spokesperson has promised to make himself available to the victim, and has said that the order is now investigating Pereda’s case, as well as the other 14 other cases that EL PAÍS has brought to their attention to date. The spokesperson also confirmed that there were two Claretian priests named Félix serving in Zamora during the 1970s. The spokesperson says they have yet to identify the priest Pereda accused of abuse, but promised that the congregation is working on gathering the necessary information to do so.

Uncovering the trauma of childhood through the trauma of war

It’s a Friday morning in late April in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn that sits on the edge of New York’s East River — the perfect place to take in the Manhattan skyline. A strong wind suggests spring finally giving way to the early days of summer. It’s one of those relentless winds that makes it hard to walk, talk, or see. Pereda, though, is unwavering: at well over six feet tall, he stands strong and serious. It’s the first time he’s told anyone, face to face, about his experience of abuse. During a walk through his neighborhood, Pereda says that New York is a very aggressive, even violent, city — but it’s his home. He’s visited 55 different countries and lived in 16, but he always ends up back in New York.

After leaving the Claretian boarding school in Zamora, Pereda enrolled in public school. He studied Hispanic Philology at the University of Valladolid, and after graduating, returned to the United States in 1989. Not knowing what to do with himself, he followed in the footsteps of his older brother, who had enlisted in the US Navy. Pereda chose the Marine Corps. As soon as he enlisted, in 1990, he was selected for a special reconnaissance unit, considered an elite force within the Marines. Reconnaissance Marines are trained to penetrate enemy lines and relay secret military intelligence. Pereda underwent numerous special training programs and courses, and was subjected to torture simulations including prolonged starvation and waterboarding — the practice of strapping someone face-up on a board, covering their face with a cloth and pouring water over their mouth and nose to simulate the sensation of drowning. “Now that I think about it, I was probably obsessed with learning these survival techniques because of the trauma I had from my childhood,” Pereda says.

José Pereda
José Luis Pereda in 2003, when he left his post in the United States Marine Corps.

Pereda describes the military as “an illusion.” When you’re living inside the mirage, he says, “they make you forget everything you learned in the civilian world and repress that part of your life.” For Pereda, this created a rift between the person he was before he joined the military and the person he became after enlisting. “The Marines completely transformed me, gave me a new purpose,” he says. In a general sense, his goal was to serve his country. On a more granular, everyday level, his goal was to survive — whether he was fording a river in Colorado during military training, or seizing control of a cigarette factory in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. And in situations like these, he didn’t have time to think about the past. He grew further and further away from it. “For me, the Marines were a distraction,” he says. “I learned to compartmentalize my trauma; I think that’s what saved me.”

“On top of that, the trauma I experienced during my time in the military was worse,” he adds. Pereda says he’s not allowed to talk in detail about anything he did or saw during his time in the Marines until at least 20 years have passed since his discharge — that is, until September 2023. But he says that the horrors of the war, and his participation in them, still haunt him to this day. He left the Marines in 2003, and every night since his mind returns to the battlefield: “In my dreams, I always wind up back in my uniform, like I’m still there.”

“My post-traumatic stress disorder is chronic, it’s always present,” Pereda laments. He’s tried going to therapy twice. The first time was just after leaving the service. He says he remembers that he only went to one session. The therapist prescribed antidepressants, and Pereda never went back. A decade passed before he tried again. This time it stuck, and he kept going for about a year, attending group therapy for veterans as well as individual sessions. He was constantly afraid of how he might react to a conflict or a tense situation. “Someone like me, who went through the kind of military training I went through — it can be dangerous. What we’re capable of doing is best left buried. We could end up hurting someone,” he says. In his day-to-day life, he tries to avoid places where he might come across people who provoke him, like the New York subway.

—Do you think that suffering the aftereffects of war and being in the military made you avoid processing the trauma from the abuse you went through as a child?

—The thing about post-traumatic stress from war is that it buries any other trauma you had before. But now I’ve finally been able to reflect back on those earlier abuses.

Pereda is sure that the “demons” he carried with him all those years cost him five marriages. “In my relationships, I was always arrogant and selfish. My problems all stem from this trauma I have, not just from the military, no — I’ve had to go all the way back to my childhood to understand it.”

If you have knowledge of a case of sexual abuse within the Church that has not been published, write to us at abusos@elpais.es. If it’s a case from Latin America, you can reach us at abusosamerica@elpais.es

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS