MEXICO CITY (IPS) – Joaquin Aguilar has been seeking justice since 1994 when he says he was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest in Mexico who is accused of molesting some 60 other boys as well.
But today, Aguilar is the target of a counterattack from the Church, and his lawyers are facing threats of being sued for slander.
“The only thing I am after is justice, and I will not rest until I obtain it; I am no longer afraid of the Church’s response,” the Mexican activist told IPS.
On Tuesday, Aguilar filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles, California accusing Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony of conspiring to protect Catholic priest Nicol?s Aguilar (no relation).
The Catholic Church in Mexico was indignant over the lawsuit, flatly denied the allegations, and responded by attacking the accuser and his lawyers, who belong to the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
“The motivation underlying this whole scandal is the aim of a radical group to commercialise justice and squeeze money out of the Church,” Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the archdiocese of Mexico, told IPS. “Mr. Aguilar is being used to that end.”
The suit brought by Aguilar, 25, accuses the cardinals of negligence, retention of evidence, and conspiracy to protect Mexican priest Nicol?s Aguilar, who allegedly sexually abused him and 60 other boys.
The priest’s whereabouts are currently unknown.
Nicol?s Aguilar served as a parish priest in the central Mexican city of Puebla in the 1980s, under then bishop Rivera, who transferred him to Los Angeles, where he served under Mahony. He fled to Mexico in 1988 from the United States, where he faces 19 counts of child molestation. He also faces charges in Mexico, where he is a fugitive from justice.
According to the activists, he continues to serve as a priest in remote areas of the state of Puebla.
“We have enough evidence, including letters and tape recordings, to demonstrate that the two cardinals covered up and protected Nicol?s Aguilar, who abused our client and many others,” attorney Jeff Anderson, from St. Paul, Minnesota, told IPS.
Anderson and Aguilar’s other attorneys work with SNAP.
Various kinds of evidence, testimony and confessions from bishops have shown that Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing minors have been transferred from parish to parish, sent to rehabilitation centres, or simply removed from the scene by their superiors to protect the Church from scandal and avoid court action. However, many simply continue their activities elsewhere.
That is what happened in the case of Nicol?s Aguilar, “who abused me, causing tremendous internal damages,” and did the same with other boys before he was reassigned to Los Angeles, said Joaqu?n Aguilar. He brought charges in Mexico against the priest, but the case was never prosecuted.
Nicol?s Aguilar was protected by his superiors, and “we have a great deal of evidence of that, which is why I have filed charges against the cardinals,” he said. “I didn’t find justice in Mexico, so I have turned to the United States, and I want to make it clear that I will see this through to the very last consequences.”
Valdemar said neither Rivera nor Mahony has ever covered up for a priest who has molested children, and underlined that the Catholic Church believes sexual abuse of children is a crime that must be dealt with in court even if it involves a priest.
But, he said “radical groups (an allusion to SNAP) can’t just file unfounded claims that are merely aimed at obtaining money, and in a foreign court, which at least in the case of Cardinal Rivera has no reason to be accepted.”
“The Mexican Church will not play along with this absurd lawsuit, but it will not sit back with its arms crossed, and we may soon file a suit against the foreign lawyers for defamation and slander,” Valdemar added.
In what Aguilar’s U.S. attorneys said may have been an attempt at harassment ordered by the Church, immigration agents attempted to detain them Wednesday when they arrived in Mexico to hold a press conference to announce the case.
But Valdemar denied that the Church had anything to do with the incident.
“What is true is that these gentlemen entered Mexico as tourists and began to talk here about a lawsuit and speak out against the Church, without any authorisation to do so,” he added.
Former Catholic priest Alberto Athi? said Aguilar’s lawsuit is good for the Church, because it sheds light on corruption that runs through the entire institution.
The church sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States in 2002, with former victims speaking out and filing around 1,200 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.
Cardinal Rivera says these instructions were accepted by the Church in Mexico, and invited the faithful to report pedophile priests who, he said, do not enjoy any kind of impunity here.
However, not all of the bishops agree with the instructions from Rome.
“It is not right to turn over our sons (implicated in sex abuse scandals), the sons of the Church, to civil authorities,” Bishop Renato Le?n, in Ciudad Ju?rez, on the U.S. border, said in 2002.
“Dirty laundry is washed at home,” said Sergio Obeso, bishop of Jalapa, a city on the Gulf of Mexico.
SNAP has compiled a list of 40 priests — mainly Mexicans — accused of sexual abuse, who fled the United States and are allegedly living in Mexico.
As Aguilar told IPS in an earlier interview, “priests flee to Mexico because they know that here they will be protected by both church and secular authorities.”
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.
By Diego Cevallos