Pope caught up in Argentine paedophile priest scandal

This Mediapart investigation reveals how 25 bishops, five of who are still active, were directly involved in protecting 24 people, mostly priests, accused of sexual abuse. Part two.

By Mathieu Martiniere, Daphné Gastaldi, Mathieu Périsse

This article was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

In 2010 when he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis commissioned a report that sought to exonerate a prominent priest who had been convicted of paedophilia. Now for the first time an Argentine judge has told Mediapart and TV documentary Cash Investigation that a direct attempt was made by the church to influence his views ahead of the priest’s appeal hearing. Martin Boudot, Daphné Gastaldi, Mathieu Martinière, Mathieu Périsse and Antton Rouget report.

Officially, the Catholic Church has adopted a “zero tolerance” attitude towards child abuse. Under pressure following a number of high-profile paedophile affairs, including scandals involving French clergy, the Vatican has insisted that it takes an uncompromising stance on the subject. However, according to a joint investigation by Mediapart and French television documentary programme Cash Investigation, several senior figures in the Catholic Church have knowingly covered up or defended priests accused of acts of child abuse. Some of these cases directly affect the Vatican itself.

Indeed, the claims reach up as high as Pope Francis himself. For when the Argentine-born head of the Catholic Church was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, he actively took part in a lobbying operation aimed at defending a well-known priest in his country, Father Grassi, who in 2009 was given a 15-year jail term for assaulting two children.

That judicial verdict caused huge shockwaves in Argentina because Julio Grassi had been a star in his native land

That judicial verdict caused huge shockwaves in Argentina because Julio Grassi had been a star in his native land. He was modern, media-friendly and very influential and over the years his relationships with people at the highest national levels in the worlds of politics, economics and culture had turned him into a major figure. A clever speaker, Father Grassi came across as a benevolent priest as he did the tour of the country’s television talent shows, presented his own radio programme and backed charity missions, seeking to represent the very embodiment of a virtuous Church.

Then in 2002, after several allegations had been nipped in the bud, the well-known investigative television programme Telenoche Investiga managed to unearth the shameful practices of this priestly role model: Julio Grassi was openly linked with assaults on minors at the Felices Los Niños (‘Happy Children’) Foundation which he had set up in 1993.

Even today the young man lives as a recluse in the suburbs of Buenos Aires through fear of reprisals

The central plank of the investigative report was the story of ‘Gabriel’, who had been raped at the age of 15. His testimony provoked the biggest paedophile scandal the Argentine church has known. Even today the young man lives as a recluse in the suburbs of Buenos Aires through fear of reprisals. “I have received threats, there’s proof,” he told Mediapart’s colleagues at Cash Investigation. “Some people broke into my home, broke my door. They stole some personal items but also some documents what could have been of use to me during the Grassi trial. In the end the justice system was forced to take action for my safety: I was placed in a witness protection scheme before the trial,” he says.

The violence of the judicial battle also deeply affected ‘Gabriel’. From the start of the scandal Julio Grassi hired the best lawyers, around 20 in total, who adopted a very aggressive defence strategy. The priest was also able to count on the unflagging support of his church hierarchy. “The attitude of the Pope since 2002, when he was a cardinal, until today helped facilitate Grassi’s impunity,” says Juan Pablo Gallego, a lawyer for the victims. “If Bergoglio [editor’s note, the Pope’s real surname] agreed with the Church’s doctrine, already in place under Benedict XVI [editor’s note, Pope from 2005 to 2013], Grassi would have been jettisoned a long time ago, reduced to the laity and no longer allowed to be part of the Catholic Church’.

The 2,600-page report sought to show that the complainants had lied and even went so far as to raise question marks over the victims’ sexuality

But the Church was not merely a passive onlooker, allowing Father Grassi to remain in the Church despite the allegations. In 2010, after the priest’s first conviction, the Argentine church went as far as to commission a counter report aimed at exonerating the priest. Written by Marcelo Sancinetti, a renowned legal expert who teaches criminal law at the University of Buenos Aires, the report entitled ‘Studies on the Grassi case’ was commissioned by the Argentine Episcopal Conference. And that body’s president at the time was Cardinal Bergoglio, who in 2013 became South America’s first pope, taking the name of Pope Francis. The 2,600-page report sought to show that the complainants had lied and even went so far as to raise question marks over the victims’ sexuality. For example, an entire chapter was devoted to highlighting “irrefutable information” about the life of one of the complainants, with a view of questioning his heterosexuality. The document argued in just one direction and came to one conclusion: that the justice system had made a mistake and Julio Grassi should be acquitted on appeal.

The Argentine press has already mentioned the existence of this document commissioned by the Pope. But what is less well-known is that far from being simply an internal document, the report was a lobbying tool which was sent to judges handling the case on the very eve of the appeal hearing. The report was also edited on three occasions, in 2010, 2011 and 2013, dates which correspond to the different appeals lodged by the paedophile priest at various courts.

This article is part of an investigation. Also read part 1, part 3 and part 4 of the story.

Photo: Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica and Gardens of Vatican City. – © Wikimedia

Mediapart is an independent French online investigative and opinion journal created in 2008 by Edwy Plenel, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde. Mediapart is published in French, English and Spanish.

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