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Special Reports


Network to Track Down Pedophile Priests
Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY,  (IPS) - Some 40 Catholic priests fleeing charges of child abuse in the United States are reportedly living in Mexico. But they are being tracked down by an international organisation that will also encourage abuse victims in this country to step forward and seek help and justice.

"We are fighting impunity, and fighting the fear of accusing priests who are seen asàservants of God, even though many of them are not," Joaquín Aguilar, Mexico director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told IPS.

SNAP is active in the United States and Canada, where some 1,200 abuse claims have been brought against priests accused of sexual abuse of minors since the scandal broke in 2002.

The organisation says that priests who have committed sexual abuse enjoy impunity in Mexico - an allegation that is flatly denied by the Roman Catholic Church.

According to Aguilar, who was himself sexually abused by a priest in 1994, "priests flee to Mexico because they know that here they will be protected by both church and secular authorities."

SNAP, which is beginning to operate in Mexico this month, has put together a list of 40 priests - mainly Mexicans - accused of sexual abuse, who fled the United States and are allegedly living in Mexico.

"We are going after them, we will track them down, that is our commitment," said Aguilar.

The church sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States in 2002, with former victims speaking out and filing lawsuits, and evidence emerging that bishops knowingly reassigned priests despite allegations against them.

The Vatican organised symposiums and carried out a study on the matter, and urged bishops around the world to take vigorous measures against priests implicated in the scandal, and to report the cases directly to the Pope.

The church leadership also gave instructions for each case to be promptly investigated and tried by special church tribunals subject to "pontifical secret", but without placing hurdles in the way of secular authorities investigating the cases.

The church is not "attempting to block out the sun with a finger, and recognises that (in Mexico) there have been truly regrettable cases, although they have not been as frequent as some NGOs (non-governmental organisations) indicate by magnifying things in a malicious manner," the Mexico City archdiocese said in its weekly publication Desde la Fe in late 2005.

"The church seeks vocational excellence and is itself seriously affected when bad priests denigrate the Church of Christ with their actions and hurt others," stated the archdiocese, adding that it was thus calling on the faithful to report "any improper conduct."

The archdiocese was reacting to allegations by the non-governmental Department of Investigations of Religious Abuses in Mexico, which asserted that 30 percent of the just over 14,000 active priests in the country had committed some kind of sex abuse against members of their flock. However, it did not clearly explain how it came up with that statistic.

"We believe that these figures are real, even if the Church continues to protect the culprits from being held accountable," said Aguilar.

"My own case is one illustration," said the activist. "I reported a priest for abusing me, and despite the proof and the fact that he had already abused others, he is free and we don't know if he is still an active priest."

The priest accused by the SNAP activist is Nicolás Aguilar, who worked in the central Mexican city of Puebla and in Los Angeles, California.

The priest fled to Mexico in 1988 from the United States, where he faces 19 felony counts of committing lewd acts on a child. He also faces charges in Mexico.

His whereabouts are unknown, but the director of the Mexican office of SNAP said "I would not be surprised if he is still an active priest, like the majority of the pedophile priests protected by the church."

In 2002, Abelardo Alvarado, spokesman for the Mexican Bishops' Conference, acknowledged that the church had kept mum for years on cases of sex abuse of minors, to protect its image as well as the victims.

In Mexico, which has the second largest number of Catholics in the world after Brazil, no one knows for certain how many priests have been accused of child abuse, but the church claims there have only been a few isolated cases.

One of the most high-profile involves 85-year-old Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, a little-known but well-financed and powerful order.

Former students for the priesthood in the Legion of Christ seminaries have accused Maciel of drug abuse and of sexually abusing them when they were children and adolescents.

The Vatican suspended Maciel as head of the congregation from 1956 until 1958 because of similar accusations, but he was eventually declared innocent and reinstated. However, a new investigation was launched in late 2004, and shortly afterwards Maciel stepped down as head of the Legion.

SNAP's Aguilar said that besides tracking down pedophile priests who fled the United States, the organisation will provide legal and psychological assistance to abuse victims.

The organisation will also design campaigns to fight the fear of many abuse survivors to speak out, and encourage them to come forward.



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