In Venezuela, priests convicted of abuse have returned to ministry

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CARACAS, Venezuela – A 6-year-old boy walks to his church with exciting news to share. He thought about it, he told Bishop Luis Alberto Mosquera, and he decided he wanted to be an active Catholic.

“If you want to be an altar boy, you have to pass a test,” the priest replied, according to the boy. Years later, the child’s testimony about that afternoon at the rectory would prove crucial: A court concluded that Mosquera had sexually abused him.

Mosquera was convicted in 2006 of sexually abusing a child and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. But he did not complete the sentence. His lawyers feared for his safety in prison and sought probation. In 2008, he was released and returned to the church in Lara state, where he is still a priest. A photo posted on his Facebook page in 2016 and reposted in 2017 shows him surrounded by children.

The 63-year-old cleric’s case is among 10 cases involving child molestation allegations that have been scrutinized by The Washington Post over the past two years. The Post interviewed Catholic leaders, police, court officials and victims and reviewed police and court documents. In half of the cases, between 2001 and 2022, The Post found priests convicted of crimes were released from prison early or not at all. In at least three cases, priests were allowed to return to the ministry.

Critics see a pattern that they say shows collusion between the corrupt justice system and the Church to protect perpetrators rather than victims. The common factor in all 10 cases: The children involved come from poor and vulnerable backgrounds.

Accusations of abuse by priests have rocked the Church across Latin America in recent years. Attacks are reported in Mexico, Argentina, ChileColombia and Peru have convicted and resigned at the highest levels of the organization.

But Venezuela has managed to escape this wave. Analysts say the focus on political instability in the failing socialist country is one reason. The broken justice system is another problem. The influence of the Church and comparative stability is a third.

“A lot of things have stalled because of the social and political turmoil,” said the Tulane University sociologist. David Smilde, whose extensive study of the country has focused in part on religion. “One of the institutions that Venezuelans respect the most is the Catholic Church. It limits how much you can act. ”

Hugo Chávez, the founder of the socialist state of Venezuela, has openly criticized the Church. But under his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, who has been much less outspoken about violations by priests, the Church has become a mediator between the government and the opposition.

“Our relationship with the Church is one of reconciliation and political support,” said Julio Borges, an opposition politician.

For clerics who have abused minors, the status of the Church seems to have provided protection. One priest in Zulia, for example, did not go to jail despite being convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of a 12-year-old child. A priest in the state of Falcón has pleaded guilty to committing carnal acts against a 14-year-old boy but is under house arrest on condition that he stay away from the victim. He returned to the Church, where he continues his ministry today.

For the victims in these cases, life is still a struggle. They often have little support when they try to move on.

Challenging the Church’s Silence and Punishment

The mosque operates in the small town of Humocaro Alto, about 300 kilometers west of Caracas. He has been assigned to work for at least two different parishes since 1996, when a 12-year-old boy accused him of trying to rape him with a gun, police records show. He was eventually acquitted of attempted rape.

In January, Mosquera confirmed to The Post that he remains an active priest. He declined to answer other questions.

His current role comes as no surprise to the lawyer, who represented the 6-year-old boy and helped push Mosquera’s conviction.

“The Church really protected the priest. They gave him all their support,” said attorney Jorge Mendoza. As the boy’s lawyer, Mendoza said he was pressured to back down: “I was informed by the archbishop of Barquisimeto that I would be excommunicated if I continued to defend the child.”

The archbishop passed away last year. Father Oswaldo Araque, vicar general of Barquisimeto, told The Post that the archdiocese is “paying attention” in receiving and handling allegations against the priests. When asked about the Church’s crimes in bringing a convicted pedophile back to ministry, he said they would investigate if The Post provided details.

“The state also has a responsibility!” he say. “They let him go.”

Catholic clerics in France are likely to abuse more than 200,000 minors, independent commission estimates

Other cases reviewed by The Post also ended with minimal time served behind bars – if that’s the case. In one, a priest in the state of Mérida exchanged text messages with a 13-year-old girl, took her into a hotel room and kissed her, a court found. The girl testified that he tried to lift her shirt up. His attorneys argued that she wanted to go with him and that no sexual acts were satisfying. In 2006, he was found not guilty of a more aggravated lewd act.

With little confidence that Venezuelan law enforcement or the courts will respond quickly and effectively to allegations of abuse, some victims have attracted attention by posting allegations on social media. social media.

In 2018, a plea on Twitter helped expose a case in the state of Anzoátegui. “Pedophile priest,” it warned, then named the parish and begged: “Please help us, Holy Father.” Father Enrique Castro Azócar was arrested the following year and charged with sexually abusing two minors.

The search for justice has exhausted the fathers of the victims. “Our lives were changed forever because of this,” Robing Damián Salazar, a carpenter, told The Post. “I was harassed and threatened, fighting for my children.”

Castro pleaded guilty to two counts of molesting a child and was sentenced to five years. But instead of going to prison, he was given a type of probation that is considered an alternative measure of freedom in Venezuela. He was released on the condition that he stay away from his victims, receive psychiatric treatment and appear in court every 30 days.

Victim advocates argued that the verdict violated a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court, the country’s highest court, which said individuals convicted of such crimes were ineligible to alternative to incarceration. Lawyer Carlos Trapani, head of the children’s rights group Cecodap, said: “Things like this reflect a state of defenselessness and impunity that is common in the country.

A police file obtained by The Post shows the priest has been charged with a similar crime in the Diocese of Barcelona. At least two family applying complaints with prosecutors in 2014, police and prosecutor records show. Does not result in fees. The alleged victims were only 10 years old.

According to police documents, Bishop Jorge Aníbal Quintero said Castro would be removed from the priesthood. In fact, he was simply transferred to another parish. Neither Quintero nor the Diocese of El Tigre responded to requests for comment. Castro could not be reached for comment.

Father Carlos Viña, the representative of Barcelona in the state of Anzoátegui, has been in charge of investigating allegations of abuse across Venezuela for 10 years. He said he had found evidence to substantiate eight cases, although none were made public by the Church.

Viña told The Post in January: “A criminal priest is a risk to children and young people.

Cases showing ‘obvious abnormalities’

A judge from the Supreme Court, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, reviewed six cases identified by The Post.

In one case, Father Rafael Márquez of Zulia, who founded a network of houses to shelter and educate children living on the streets, was accused of aggravated lewd behavior against 12 children under 16 years of age “in the presence of other children and adolescents”. prosecutors said in court documents.

Márquez’s sentence was not made public. The last available court document was 2011.

Márquez worked as a priest until his death in 2018, according to Father José Palmar, who knew him. “He was given alternative sanctions,” Palmar said. “In that case, the Church didn’t do what it was supposed to do. There is no rule test. The State and the Church were complicit.”

The priest’s lawyer, Álvaro Castillo Zeppenfeldt, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court judge said all of the cases presented “clear irregularities”, including the granting of prison alternatives to convicted abusers who returned to the Department of Justice. without supervision. “In all of them, I noticed that crimes should have ended with greater punishment, but they didn’t. There is a problem.”

Neither the Vatican nor the Venezuelan bishops’ conference responded to requests for comment.

A teenager is accused of abuse inside Vatican City. The powerful figures in the church helped him become a priest.

The Post interviewed dozens of people who said they had been abused or harassed by clerics but were unable to seek justice.

“There is a creepy system” between church and state, said one nun, who asked not to be named. “Families need help, food, all the things the Church does in poor communities, and perpetrators use this to reach victims and keep them quiet.”

José Leonardo Araujo, a 33-year-old lawyer in Caracas, has spent his adult life in and out of therapy dealing with suicidal thoughts that torment him at least monthly.

Araujo said he was abused at the age of 13 by a Mexican priest who worked for the San Pablo congregation in Venezuela. He reported the charges to local prosecutors in the state of Mérida in 2019, but the case died in the justice system. He said he then turned to the Church but was told there was no evidence. Cardinal Baltazar Porras, who received the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident was quickly forgotten in Venezuela, but it gained attention in Mexico, where Father Juan Huerta Ibarra was investigated by the Church, found guilty and expelled from the priesthood, according to a statement. from the Society of Saint Paul. Huerta declined to comment.

None of the hundreds of NGOs in Venezuela are focused on the abuse of priests. Victims turned to groups in Argentina and Chile for support. Víctor Hernández, 26 years old from the city Barquisimeto, said he sought help in Venezuela before finding a network of survivors in Argentina.

Hernández recounted being abused at the age of 15 by a now deceased monsignor in Lara state. He recently reported his case to the nuncio, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Caracas. In a written statement, he described an episode in which the monsignor abused him and then asked him to stay to attend an impromptu ceremony. “I arranged everything exactly as he indicated. On his bed, He presided over the Eucharist, received Holy Communion and gave me the sign of peace; all this after abusing me less than an hour ago,” he wrote.

The nuncio told him in an email that the case had been submitted to the Apostolic Administrator of Barquisimeto. A representative did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

Hernández, who now lives in Spain, said: “I couldn’t do anything else. “Here, we are alone.”

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