Gabriel Varela and his mother, Beatriz, are among the few Argentines who have dared to take on the very top of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy — not only on their own soil, but all the way to the Vatican. And why not? The man at the centre of their outrage, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is the new Pope…
Even for the protagonists themselves, it’s not easy to tell this story. Beatriz Varela and her son Gabriel have had to wait almost 11 years for the Argentine judiciary, in an unprecedented decision, to sentence the Catholic Church for its responsibility in the pedophilic acts of a priest against a then 15-year-old boy.
The Appeals Court of Quilmes, in Buenos Aires province, upheld the sentence by a lower court in December, which sentenced the local bishop to pay 155,600 Argentine pesos (more than 23,000 euros) for the psychotherapeutic costs and moral damage to the boy and his mother.
The crime took place on August 15, 2002. Varela invited Father Rubén Pardo, the local vicar, to her home, to teach her two sons about the precepts of the church. According to journalist Mariana Carvajal, of the newspaper Página 12, the 50-year-old priest talked with Gabriel alone, and later, at supper, asked the boy’s mother to let him stay the night at the priest’s residence to continue the dialogue and so that on the following day, he would assist in the celebration of a mass.
Later, Gabriel would tell the court that Pardo had invited him to sleep with him, a gesture the teenager interpreted as a paternal attitude. It was then that the priest sexually abused him.
“I knew he was raping me, but I couldn’t think what to do to get away, because I was so shocked and afraid,” Gabriel said.
Once Pardo had fallen asleep, Gabriel fled in terror and told his mother what had happened.
Beatriz Varela immediately went to the bishop of Quilmes, Luis Stöckler. “At first he appeared concerned, but as the days went by, he showed no sign of taking any measures,” Varela said. The bishop “tried to minimize what happened, saying I had to be compassionate with persons who had chosen celibacy for their vocation, because they have moments of weakness.”
But the mother told the bishop that she was there because she wanted “truth, justice and for it never to happen to anyone else.” The bishop then began to pressure her “by way of paycheques”. “I worked in a church-run school,” she explained.
Varela turned to the ecclesiastical tribunal next, “whose president didn’t want to hear my denunciation.” Two weeks later she was interviewed by four priests “who put me through a humiliating interrogation, with lascivious and tendentious questions, putting me in the role of the villain, when they knew that it had happened, because the abuser had admitted it to his bishop, who reprimanded him.”
Gabriel’s mother also went to the metropolitan curia, the home of the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, better known today as Pope Francis I. The security guards tried to expel her. In the cathedral, which adjoins the curia, she learned that the pedophile had been put up in a vicarage house in the barrio of Flores, under the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, whose head is now the Pontifex Maximus and head of the Vatican.
“Bergoglio knew all about this denunciation,” Varela says. “Nobody was installed in any vicarage without the authorization of the archbishop. That’s Bergoglio’s commitment: just lip service,” she says. “When it comes to pedophilia, the Church acts to cover them up, with hypocrisies, lies, and complicity, and without commitment before God and society. Everyone knows and everyone keeps silent, so everyone’s an accomplice. And at the top of it all is an institution revered by society. The Church smiles on its face, and everyone is happy because an Argentine is on the throne,” says Varela.
The mother regrets the confidence she placed in the Church. “The priests are trained to steer the masses, to manipulate their minds,” she adds.
Any joy she might have felt at the news of the sentence against the Diocese of Quilmes was muted by a phone call Varela received last week. “There are two priests who were transferred to the Archdiocese of Córdoba [in central Argentina] when the denunciation was made,” she says. “On Friday, a mother called me in distress because her four-year-old daughter had been raped by those two priests, who still work in a school. She had anal fissures, there are photos of her and other little compañeras. And other children are still at risk.”
The mother of the abused girl, who did not want to come forward [to the press] at this time, launched a suit seven months ago against the priests, but the two men are still working in a school. “This is a pedophile network, because the schoolmistress is well aware of the fact that three or four girls disappeared during recess and reappeared later. That’s called a cover-up,” Varela says.
The judicial process she and her son have gone through has not been easy, and while she is grateful for the verdict, she feels she has waited too long for justice. “When the priest who abused my son died (of AIDS, in 2005), the file disappeared for two years. The case nearly fell through, and my son thought of suicide and was hospitalized a month and a half in a psychiatric clinic,” she recalls. “No amount of money can compensate what we have suffered.”
Unlike the mother from Córdoba, Varela has decided to go public. “Stöckler, who is still bishop emeritus of Quilmes, tried to silence me, but I told him: Only death can shut me up. My son has already suffered. No other child is going to suffer through my silence,” she says.
Gabriel, now 25 years old, has agreed to the publication of his story. He knows all too well what it means to suffer. “I had nightmares, I couldn’t sleep. At times I felt guilt for what had happened, which is what the Church was looking for when they told my mom that she had caused this, or that I had provoked this person [Pardo].”
One of the hardest moments came when the the file [on Pardo] went missing. “I felt we had lost, and that all those years of fighting and all the money spent were in vain,” says Gabriel. But, with psychological help and the support of his mother and brothers, he was able to move ahead at last and realize that nothing that had happened was his fault, “because no one is responsible for another person’s perversion, and because one is a victim.”
But the young man doesn’t consider it good to go on playing that role. “There are so many people who don’t denounce because they’re afraid, or ashamed, to speak out against a man of the cloth. That’s why I had to act.”
Gabriel no longer considers himself a Catholic, and is trying to declare his apostasy. “Any decision the Church takes represents you as one of the faithful. And the Constitution indicates that the state has the obligation to submit to the majority’s beliefs. With my renunciation, the institution will lose power,” he concludes.
The Argentine Catholic church was already compromised during the fascist junta dictatorship of 1976-83. There are more than a few high-ranking churchmen accused of covering up the junta’s crimes, and feeding communion and absolution to the generals who ordered the atrocities from the very top. Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, is one of those churchmen. But while he appears to have slipped past media scrutiny for that episode, this one won’t be so easy to shake off. Like Pope Benedict (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) before him, this pope is now known to be a cover-up man. His job was not so much to rectify the crimes of lower churchmen, as to sweep them under the rug in the time-honored churchly fashion: by transferring them to other parishes, dioceses, churches and schools. Effectively this left them free to molest, abuse and rape again. And just as effectively, it makes him culpable for their crimes.
The fact that liability was proven in this case sets an important precedent, as it clears the way for other claims in Argentina to go forward, and provides the plaintiffs with the confirmation that they are not alone in their frustration and outrage. They are all victims of the same crime and the same cover-up; now, they stand to become beneficiaries of the same justice, and to receive badly needed compensation for medical treatments incurred while fighting the physical and mental illnesses that invariably follow sexual abuse. And the help can’t come a moment too soon.