[Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a four-part series. Part one can be found here.]
ROME – When the Vatican suppressed Argentina’s Hermanos Discípulos de Jesús de San Juan Bautista, this summer, the act was welcome news for ex-members, some of whom have been waiting for years to get justice for alleged abuses suffered under the group’s founder and other members.
Scandals in new movements and communities such as the Legion of Christ founded by the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado or the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV) launched by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, have become all too familiar a story in global Catholicism in recent years.
Like the Legionaries and the SCV, members of the Hermanos allegedly endured a wide range of abuse and manipulation, including psychological abuse, abuse of power/authority, and sexual abuse, including the abuse and rape of minors.
In June the Vatican suppressed the order after several former members issued both canonical and civil complaints against the order’s founder, Father Agustin Rosa, and another prominent member of the order, Nicolas Parma, known in the community by his religious name, “Father Felipe.”
Three former members of the community – Valeria Zarza, Yair Gyurkovitz and a third person who chose to stay anonymous – raised criminal complaints against Rosa and Parma, who were charged on counts of alleged sexual assault and rape of minors in 2016.
Crux’s repeated attempts to contact the legal representatives of Rosa and Parma have been unsuccessful.
Several ex-members of the order spoke to Crux about their experience, sharing stories of manipulation, intimidation, abuse and rape. They spoke of financial corruption and the members, mostly women and those from poor families, forced into conditions of servitude. They recalled, among other things, how some were forced to beg for their necessities, including crucial medications for illnesses such as cancer, despite the order’s wealth and numerous properties.
Although claims of financial corruption have not been independently verified, nearly every ex-member of the order who spoke to Crux recounted stories of questionable economic activities.
Since leaving, many victims have found solace and support in one another, creating a network where they offer one another the support they said they didn’t find in the Church, or, in many cases, in civil law.
According to the victims, no one has received compensation, and many are still waiting for an update on the status of their canonical cases, unsure of where their abusers are, or if they are still in ministry.
While viewing the suppression of the order and the civil charges against Rosa and Parma as steps in the right direction, many are simply focused on trying to move beyond the horrors of the past while struggling to build a new future.
One of three people who have raised civil charges of sexual abuse against Rosa, Valeria Zarza, 46, entered the order in 1997, just one year after its formal establishment. She was joyful, she was zealous, and her keen ability to attract young people was immediately noticed by Rosa, who soon took her under his wing.
For 10 years she was one of Rosa’s closes aides and was expected to attend to all of his needs, from organizing his schedule and preparing retreats, to massaging his feet.
Believing him to be a saint, it did not raise flags when two or three years after she entered, he began making jokes about her body or playing little “games” involving touching, such as trying to walk through small spaces at the same time or “accidentally” brushing her chest or her behind – things she was surprised by, but let go because of his reputation for holiness.
“I couldn’t understand how someone God spoke to and who experienced miracles could be an abuser,” she told Crux, explaining that Rosa would tell members about mystical experiences or conversations with God. Because of this, the small things seemed easy to dismiss.
For instance, it was also easy to dismiss how women and the poor were treated in the community, she said, explaining that they were forced to do the most mundane tasks and were often the first to be abused. Sisters were not provided health insurance by the order but needed either to ask someone to pay for it as a donation or ask companies to donate it for free.
Some sisters, and a handful of brothers, Zarza said, were also expected to provide sexual services to benefactors.
If Rosa perceived that a benefactor had an eye for a certain brother or sister, he sent that person to visit the benefactor “with the consequences that were there,” she said, recalling how after one sister was allegedly raped by a benefactor, Rosa blamed her for seducing the man, calling her a “prostitute.”
Yet when things like this happened, members’ complaints were disregarded. In the community, if members were mistreated by a superior, they were expected to offer it up out of “love of Christ” and “for the salvation of souls,” Zarza said.
As time went on and Zarza gained more of Rosa’s trust, she was tasked with organizing retreats for the men’s community, and she was also trusted with more sensitive tasks, such as carrying money from Mexico to Argentina.
Zarza recalled how at one point she was asked to carry some $30,000 from Mexico to Argentina, stuffing the cash inside the hole in her guitar. After the experience, Zarza said she was “very anxious and nervous” about traveling with that much cash, so she was not asked to do it again.
However, she also recounted a time while serving as superior of a community in which a sister in the house was asked by Rosa to carry cash to give to her so she could give it to him. And though she never witnessed this in person, she also heard many brothers in the community speak of carrying cash inside statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe or other images.
Yet it was during the retreats she organized that, toward the end of 2005, young men began confiding in her that they had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of members of the community.
When she went to Rosa about it, he denied there was any abuse, insisting that it was simple “weakness” on the part of certain brothers. When Zarza refused to give him the names of those who complained, she said Rosa became infuriated, and within a week she was transferred to a community in Mexico.
She stayed there for five years, until 2010, when she herself would become a victim. That year, after being upset with Zarza for refusing to hand over a fancy property donated to the sisters as a retirement home, Rosa visited the Mexico community.
Though he assured her that the incident had blown over, it was clear that “he intended to abuse me,” she said.
During the episode that is now the basis of her criminal complaint against Rosa, the founder allegedly isolated her after a meeting. Saying he wanted to see if belts fit the sisters better than the rope chords they wore around their waists as part of their habits, he took off his belt and told her to “stay quiet” as he slipped it behind her back, pulled her toward him and buried his face in her chest.
Stunned, Zarza said she shouted and ran out of the convent, coming back only at the beckoning of her superior, but she was sure to avoid Rosa, who at that point “was very tense.”
“Then the war started,” she said, explaining that she was transferred back to Argentina, stripped of her belongings and sent to see a psychologist, who put her on medication.
She then fell into a depression and was crying day and night. Because of this, she was stripped of her work in the community and barred from contact with other members and from regular contact with her family. It was during a rare trip to Spain in 2014 to visit her sister, she said, that her eyes “began to open” after spending some six months in another convent.
Upon her return, Zarza requested an audience with Rosa to ask permission to leave the order. She was denied permission and told she needed to take a spiritual retreat to “purify” herself.
Over the next two months, she was completely isolated. Other sisters were told not to speak to her because she was “crazy” and needed an exorcist, so she began communicating with some of the brothers in private, passing notes asking for help.
In 2015, the brothers she had written to asked that she be transferred to another, even more isolated house. The request was granted, and after she arrived, a priest helped her to escape when the other sisters left the house to perform their daily tasks.
Having nothing, she turned to her mother and was given a car, a cell phone, clothes and money as she tried to process what had happened and begin a new life outside of the community without any professional education or experience.
Zarza said that soon after she left, other ex-members of the order, from both the women’s and men’s branches, began reaching out to share their own stories of abuse. Later that year, she and several other victims sought out the Archbishop of Salta, Mario Antonio Cargnello, to make a complaint.
However, when they sat down with him, Zarza said Cargnello put the blame on them for not coming forward sooner, saying it was their fault for not speaking up and suggesting they take their cause up with Bishop Óscar Vicente Ojea Quintana of San Isidro, president of the Argentine bishops’ conference.
Cargnello came under fire for cover-up in Argentine media when civil charges against Rosa and Parma went public in 2016, specifically for failing to report the accusations involving minors to civil authorities. At the time, he punted the question, saying he sent everything to the Vatican and that Bishop Luis Stockler, bishop emeritus of Quilmes, who was tasked with overseeing the order during the investigation, was responsible for complaints.
Cargnello did not respond to a Crux request for comment.
(On Oct. 3 the Archdiocese of Salta was raided by prosecutor Sergio Federico Obeid in relation to another case of alleged sexual abuse regarding Father Emilio Raimundo Lamas, who was accused of abusing a minor in 2016. In 2018, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered that Lamas be dismissed from the clerical state. He is currently awaiting the ruling of an appeal.)
After what she said was her dead-end with Cargnello, Zarza contacted Ojea, who she said helped her and some 30 other victims to make formal complaints, urging others to come forward.
She also turned to civil authorities, which contributed to Rosa being charged with sexual abuse in 2016.
He is currently under house arrest while waiting for a judge to be assigned to his case. However, there are many other victims who will be unable to raise charges, Zarza said, noting that in Salta, groping – Rosa’s preferred method of abuse while “checking for STDs” – is not considered sexual abuse.
Thanks to this “medieval” mentality, she said, many victims will go without justice in the courts.
Zarza also made a canonical complaint against Rosa when she left, but never heard back from ecclesial authorities. She said she was not allowed to have a copy of her complaint and, as she lived in the mountains and needed to travel to Salta to make her complaint, she had to pay for the all the trips out of her own pocket, with no assistance from the archdiocese.
“The canonical process is tremendous. It’s worse than civil justice,” she said, explaining that eventually, she gave up on the canonical process altogether.
After she started speaking out and encouraging other victims to come forward, Zarza said she was threatened by members of the order and people close to the congregation.
On Nov. 1 a trial opened in Salta in which Zarza is the alleged perpetrator of alleged sexual abuse of a young girl, now an adult, while teaching at the woman’s childhood school. Zarza was unaware of the accusation against her until she received formal notice in September 2017 that a case had been opened against her.
As she waits for her trial to begin next month, Zarza – who said she was shocked by allegations of abusing a minor, expecting instead accusations of defamation – said she is suffering from insomnia and has been unable to sleep at night for the past month. She has enlisted the help of the organization “the Survivors Network of Ecclesial Abuse” in Argentina.
With almost no professional experience, having spent her entire youth inside the order, Zarza struggles to make ends meet selling crafts, living off around one euro a day and wishing she was able to move forward, putting her legal woes behind her.
As she spoke, she reminisced about the times in community when she was “punished” by being sent on trips to the countryside, where she spent her days serving the poor, instead of working at Rosa’s side.
“I was happy, I could have been ‘punished’ like this my whole life,” she said. “This was the idea we all had.”
Yair Gyurkovitz is the second ex-member of the Hermanos who has made a criminal complaint against Rosa for sexual abuse. He also has made a complaint of abuse against another prominent member of the order, Nicolas Parma.
Coming from a family of 10 siblings, Gyurkovitz felt at home when he entered the order at 16, finding both the life in community and the emphasis on contemplative prayer appealing.
Speaking to Crux, he said that while he is no longer Catholic because of the abuse he endured while part of the order, “I consider myself a spiritual man,” which is why he was attracted to the idea of religious life, joining the community’s motherhouse in Salta in 2010.
From the beginning there was a strict sense of control, he said, explaining that young men who entered were told that they could not question their vocations. “If we were there,” he said, “it was because God called us, and we couldn’t leave.”
Though still harboring some doubt about his vocation, Gyurkovitz continued. After spending two years in Salta, in 2012 he was transferred to a house in Santa Cruz, in Argentina’s Patagonia region, where he met the man who would become his first abuser.
Known in the community as “Father Felipe,” Nicolas Parma was his superior. Described by Gyurkovitz as a “very violent” person who insulted and demeaned his subordinates, Parma acted as a “dictator,” he said, handing out orders that had to be followed without complaint or protest.
While on missions, Parma would insult the members, calling them “pieces of sh–” and saying they were worth nothing. He was also known for handing out harsh punishments for simple offences, Gyurkovitz said, recalling one winter night when someone in the community broke a guitar. As punishment, the brothers were forced to sleep outside in the cold weather.
However, Parma had his “favorites” – a select group of young men inside the community who were able to sleep in while the others rose early; they took the community cars while other brothers walked, and played games while everyone else worked.
Yet despite the climate of fear and intimidation that Parma created, Gyurkovitz still chose to confide in him when, in the midst of a personal crisis, he had sexual relations with another young man in the community.
Feeling an overwhelming sense of shame for his sin, Gyurkovitz went to Parma for guidance, but “it was a mistake.”
From that point on, Parma began harassing him – touching him, teasing him with sexual connotations and whispering things into his ear like, “I want to eat your mouth.”
The incident for which Parma is facing civil charges in Salta took place one day when Parma asked Gyurkovitz to take a nap with him. At first, Gyurkovitz refused, but when Parma insisted, he complied out of obedience. Still clothed, he climbed into bed with Parma, who was naked.
Parma then masturbated as he kissed Gyurkovitz’s neck and caressed his back and legs, moaning loudly.
After this incident, Gyurkovitz said his sense of guilt was reinforced and he was resented by other brothers. He decided to leave the order, but when he spoke to Rosa about his decision, Rosa dismissed what Parma did as mere “weakness,” urging Gyurkovitz to stay at the community in Salta.
Gyurkovitz said Rosa was kind, and had an attractive, charismatic personality, so he agreed. The two developed an intimate “father-son” relationship in which Gyurkovitz trusted Rosa so much that when Rosa repeatedly groped his genitals on grounds that he was checking for STDs, he was convinced it was out of paternal concern.
“I had no problem when he said, ‘take your pants off,’ or ‘get naked,’” Gyurkovitz said, adding that for him, when Rosa asked him to do something, it held a lot of power, “because it was the voice of God.”
However, Gyurkovitz’s inner crisis from the incident in Santa Cruz continued to nag at him, and feeling overwhelmed, he left the community in 2013. At first, he maintained contact with Rosa, still not understanding that he had been abused, and visited him often as he tried to sort through his confusion.
It wasn’t until a year and a half later, when Gyurkovitz began seeing a psychologist, that he understood he had been a victim.
“It was very confusing,” he said, insisting that had it not been for the support he received from his psychologist and from other ex-members, such as Zarza, he never would have come forward with a formal complaint.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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