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The Long Arm of Abuse Problem Priests Cross Not Just States But Oceans As Well

May 3, 2002 | U.S.News & World Report The 1999 article in the Salesian Bulletin, the magazine of the missionary Catholic order, shows no hint of the trouble that always seemed to follow the Rev. Carlos Peralta. Instead, the article notes that the popular Peruvian priest drew over 300 youngsters weekly to the St. John Bosco parish on Chicago's impoverished north side. Yet that same year, Peralta was being accused of sexually abusing four teenagers in the parish–allegations that echoed others made against him during previous postings to Chile, Guatemala, and Peru.

It is by now all too clear that Roman Catholic Church officials have routinely moved problem priests from one parish to another, or across state lines, after learning of possible abuse. These alleged coverups have exposed the church to untold legal liability and disturbed Catholics nearly as much as the abuse itself. But what is also becoming apparent is that in some cases, such as Peralta's, alleged offender-priests have been moved even farther from their accusers and further still from the reach of the law. They were shipped from country to country every time new allegations surfaced.

Less to fear. Legal experts say a growing list of these international cases could boost the efforts of lawyers suing the church hierarchy under civil racketeering statutes in the United States. The cases also suggest that the true scope of clerical abuse may never be known. "It is a problem, because [these priests] usually continue whatever behavior they have been doing wherever they go," says the Rev. Gary Hayes, himself a Catholic priest and acting head of a victim support group. Abusers in poor countries often have less to fear than they do in the United States, experts say, because laws are weaker and because priests are held in even higher esteem. In Third World countries, pointing out a priest's failings may cause the victim not only mental anguish but social ostracism.

Lawyers representing victims in claims against the Catholic Church cite several cases as evidence that the church has used international transfers–both to and from the United States–to protect accused priests, shroud their dealings, or thwart their accusers. Among them:

The Rev. Mario Pezzotti was accused of molesting two students at Xaverian Missionary Faith High School in Holliston, Mass., during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But by the time the students publicly complained, in 1993, Pezzotti had long since been transferred to Brazil, where he remains. "He was not running away," says the Rev. Robert Maloney, a colleague of Pezzotti's. Maloney noted that the alleged victims were quietly "given a sum of money" and an apology from Pezzotti. The priest said the local district attorney's office was notified only recently.

The Rev. Thomas Kane left the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., in 1993 after being accused of sexually abusing a 9-year-old boy. In a lawsuit, the boy's family alleged that the abuse occurred in the early 1980s, when Kane was treating other priests with problems such as pedophilia. Kane settled the lawsuit in 1995, without admitting guilt. He then left for Mexico, where he has been paid by the church while running a secular school. Ray Delisle, a diocese spokesman, says he believes the "stipends" to Kane, who has been relieved of his clerical duties, have ceased. He added that the diocese recently turned over all allegations of abuse–including those against Kane–to the local district attorney. Kane, who lives in Guadalajara, could not be reached.

The Rev. Enrique Díaz Jiménez was deported to Venezuela in 1991 after being convicted of sexually abusing three altar boys at his Queens, N.Y., church. But, as first detailed by the New York Times, he was not relieved of pastoral duties. Instead, Díaz Jiménez was given another assignment as a village priest, allegedly using his position to again abuse young boys. By the late 1990s, Díaz Jiménez had been suspended. Yet in his native Colombia, he again served as a priest in a small parish. Díaz Jiménez is now under house arrest in Bogotá, after being convicted of molesting two boys there last year.

The Rev. Ernesto Garcia-Rubio took a sabbatical in Colombia in 1989 following allegations that he had sexually abused four boys at a church in Sweetwater, Fla. Four eucharistic ministers, two directors of shelters for Nicaraguan refugees, and a social worker separately reported allegations to the church, including the claims of one boy who said the priest fondled him in the rectory in 1984. But instead of being returned to Florida, Garcia-Rubio, who denied the charges, was assigned to a parish in Honduras. Olga Vega, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, said the diocese will not give authorities any information about past alleged abuse. She added that she had no idea of Garcia-Rubio's present whereabouts.

Plaintiffs' lawyers are still trying to determine whether other priests who allegedly molested children in the United States have histories of abuse elsewhere. But the confidential nature of church personnel files makes it difficult even to learn where priests are moved, let alone what they do when they get there. Florida lawyer May Cain said the church has frustrated her attempts to investigate the personnel record of the Rev. Jan Malicki, a native of Poland accused of molesting two women at a church in Davie, Fla. All Cain knows is that Malicki spent 10 years in Poland with a youth ministry and seven years in the Republic of the Congo. Malicki has maintained his innocence.

The Catholic Church has successfully defended itself against federal racketeering charges in two previous abuse cases, and legal experts agree that applying the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute to the church remains difficult. Michael Dorf, a constitutional law expert at Columbia Law School, said most judges would be reluctant to accept such a claim because it departs from the law's original purpose–to prosecute organized-crime syndicates–and because government is loath to intrude into religious affairs. "[It] would strike most judges as crossing the line."

Yet experts say a claim could succeed if it proved that church leadership engaged in a pattern of concealment of child abuse. "And if there was evidence that moving them from country to country was an attempt to better conceal their activity, that would help," says Jeffrey Grell, a lawyer and RICO expert. "I would want to see letters to a priest in the new parish saying, 'This priest is of the highest caliber,' while saying nothing of why he is being moved."

St. Paul, Minn., lawyer Jeffrey Anderson contends he has just such evidence in the case against Peralta, the Peruvian priest. "They moved this guy around South America to avoid prosecution, and they moved him out of Chicago to avoid prosecution," he says.

According to church documents provided by Anderson, the first report of a problem with Peralta was recorded in Chile in the early 1980s, resulting in Peralta's departure from that country soon afterward. A more detailed report from the school where he was studying at about the same time noted that Peralta was "immature . . . a bit obsessive [and] lacks spiritual direction." The school's council of priests, the letter said, "proposes the care of a psychologist."

It is unclear whether a psychologist ever visited Peralta, but the church did move Peralta to Guatemala and then Peru, where allegations of abuse continued. In a 1991 letter to superiors, a priest revealed that he had confronted Peralta one night when Peralta had a student in his room. "I was able to see the boy standing near the bed, arranging his pants and shirt," the priest wrote. He also recounted two other incidents observed by other priests.

Pattern of abuse. The letter had little obvious effect. In 1995, Peralta was accused of sexually abusing two boys from Lima during a high school retreat. One boy said that the priest came to his room while he was getting ready for bed and forced him to sleep in the staircase as "punishment." But the boy alleges that Peralta later brought him to his room. After Peralta took off his pants and got into bed, he "started to embrace me and tell me that he could help me," the boy recounted. "He started to stroke me and he tried to touch my genitals." When the boy protested, Peralta "told me in a threatening voice to go to my room and not to tell anybody about what happened." The other student wrote that Peralta came to visit him two nights in a row, noting that on the second night he insisted "that I take off my pants and then my underwear." Then, the boy said, "he turned around and told me to hug and to tickle him."

Informed of the charges, the director of the Salesian High School of Lima simply moved Peralta to another town–a hand-slap that shocked members of the Salesians' disciplinary commission, who wrote the director about "unspeakable things that have occurred." The commission said that Peralta "must not have contact with the students in any way. He must be separated automatically from academic work in any form."

He was not. A year later, Peralta allegedly molested a teenage student during trips from Arequipa, in southern Peru, where he taught high school. "He told me that since it was cold, it was better to sleep in one bed. . . . I felt that he was stroking my chest, as though he wanted to hug me," the teenager said in a January 1997 statement. Peralta asked him not to tell his schoolmates, the boy said, "because they could become jealous."

On Jan. 7, 1998, E. Juan Vera Alva, the head of the Salesian Congregation of Peru, wrote to the Archdiocese of Chicago that Peralta "has not shown in the past any conduct problem that would indicate he cannot deal appropriately with minors." About a year later, the father of four children in the St. John Bosco parish alleged new abuses by Peralta in a letter to then Archbishop Francis George and called the Chicago police. But in the summer of 1999, before police could question him, Peralta was sent to Orange, N.J., then to Mexico City, with a prohibition against unsupervised access to children. According to a statement from the Salesian Society of Don Bosco, the Chicago police did not seek to interview Peralta in New Jersey. Still, Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Chicago police, says the Peralta case is very much alive. "We don't know where he is," Camden said. "We're certainly anxious to talk to him."

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