ROME – Valeria Zarza is just one of hundreds of victims of alleged sexual assault carried out by members of Argentina’s infamous Hermanos Discípulos de Jesús de San Juan Bautista, which was suppressed by the Vatican in June amid a flurry of allegations involving sexual abuse and financial corruption.
Similar to 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, members of the Hermanos tell of a toxic internal culture where abuse and manipulation ran rampant.
Several former members of the order have shared their stories with Crux, recounting alleged financial corruption, numerous episodes of psychological abuse, abuse of power/authority, and sexual abuse, including the abuse and rape of minors.
Though claims of financial corruption have not been independently verified, nearly every ex-member of the order who spoke to Crux recounted stories of questionable activities.
The Vatican suppressed the order in June following complaints by numerous ex-members who have 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.”
Crux’s repeated attempts to contact legal representation for Rosa and Parma have been unsuccessful.
Zarza and a member of the men’s community, Yair Gyurkovitz, are two of three ex-members who have civil cases against Rosa and Parma for sexual assault, and while their stories are tragic, they are far from alone.
A man known to the public simply as “AA” is the third victim with formal civil cases against members of the Hermanos. Referred to in some Argentine papers as “Johnathan,” the man, who has decided to stay anonymous, has taken legal action against both Rosa and Parma for alleged sexual abuse.
Born into a large family in Buenos Aires, “AA” met the Hermanos in 2007 when two members of the community arrived in his neighborhood and began doing pastoral work with children and adolescents.
Just 13 at the time he met them, “AA” was attracted to what appeared to be their joyful lifestyle and spent increasing time with them. He eventually felt called to join the order, and at the age of 14 was granted permission, by request of his mother, to move into the community’s formation house in Puerta Santa Cruz while he finished his schooling.
He first met Rosa in January 2009 when he joined the community, coming first to the house in Salta.
“I always saw Rosa as an authority,” the man told Crux, explaining that he was an important person in the community and was urged to do whatever Rosa said.
But it was not until a few months later, when he was transferred to the community’s minor formation house in Santa Cruz in March of that year, that he met Parma, who was the superior and would become his first abuser.
When “AA” arrived at the minor formation house, he was alone in the house with Parma and just one other brother, who he said fought with Parma on a regular basis, at times getting to the point where he would hit or throw things.
The first time Parma abused him, “AA” said, was one night after he had prepared the community’s chapel for Mass the next day. Once the task was finished, invited “AA” to sleep in his room.
As “AA” was preparing his sheets, Parma, he said, touched his buttocks and invited him to sit on the bed next to him. Compliant to his superior’s wishes, the man sat down and as he did, he could feel Parma rest his penis against his back under the blanket. This went on for some 20 minutes, he said, explaining that when he continued to refuse Parma’s request to sleep in the same bed, he was left alone.
After that, Parma “was increasingly violent,” he said. Known for making derogatory remarks and putting down other brothers, Parma began inviting “AA” to his room on a regular basis, where he would make a game out of the abuse, playing videos on an iPad while forcing “AA” to masturbate him.
At the time, “AA” said he did not know that what was happening was abuse, because Parma had urged young members not to undergo sex education, saying it was damaging to living chastity.
When four other young men eventually arrived at the house, “AA” said he was left alone for a while, as Parma began to spend exclusive time with the other brothers, allowing his favorites to have more lenient rules, such as sleeping in and getting out of chores.
“He was abusing them one by one. It was like a game he did with them,” “AA” said, explaining that the brothers who were abused felt guilty about it, but were forbidden to speak about what happened in Parma’s room, and they were told by Parma that it was their fault he had sinned.
Between the abuse, the guilt and the insults, many of the brothers, he said, thought about committing suicide during their time in Santa Cruz under Parma’s rule, but they didn’t know how.
After finishing secondary school and traveling to Salta to receive his formal religious habit, “AA” said he was already in the midst of a “vocational crisis” when he was molested by Rosa, “who abused me with the false title of ‘doctor’” while allegedly checking his genitals for STDs.
When “AA” expressed his desire to leave the community, he was sent to a psychologist who worked with the congregation, and who told “AA” that he had been abandoned by his family and that if he left the order, he would be rejected by society and would be unable to find a job. He was told that leaving would be a betrayal of what his family had sacrificed for him to enter, and he was advised to take medication.
“At first, I didn’t leave because of this fear…I didn’t realize the depth of what was happening,” he said, calling the experience a “horror.”
“I think one of the greatest abuses of this congregation, apart from the sexual abuse, is the psychological abuse. No one can leave this behind,” he said, “because everyone was manipulated.”
“AA” also recounted questionable financial activities in the congregation.
In one specific instance, “AA” said that while he did not witness this personally, what came to be a common topic of conversation throughout the entire congregation was an episode that began late one night when Rosa was called to give last rites to someone who was dying.
It was later discovered, “AA” said, that this person was allegedly the brother of a major Church figure in Garín, Buenos Aires who was involved in drug dealing.
“Supposedly (Rosa) didn’t know it was the brother of this narco,” “AA” said, but recalled how after that night, the parish in Garín began to receive a lot of donations.
A few months later, when Rosa was traveling from the center of Buenos Aires to Garín, he was robbed along the way and a suitcase stolen from him. “No one knew what this suitcase contained,” “AA” said, explaining that it was later recovered when the same major Church-figure asked his “employees” to look into it.
This episode “was spoken about a lot within the community,” however, “by order no one said anything to anyone” else, and nothing more was ever made of it, “AA” explained, adding that “there were always very strange movements in the whole community” financially speaking, including expensive gifts from benefactors, such as a brand new Hilux truck.
After five years, “AA” eventually left the community and in 2016, after confiding his abuse to Zarza, was encouraged by her to launch civil cases against both Rosa and Parma for sexual abuse of a minor.
The two were formally charged in Salta in 2016. However, in 2018 Parma’s case was transferred to Santa Cruz since that is where the abuse happened. In June the city prosecutor ruled that Parma’s case for alleged sexual abuse and corruption of minors would go to trial, but a date has not been set.
Rosa’s case, however, has yet be assigned a judge because, according to “AA”, the victims were told they were “imprecise” in their testimonies and lacked necessary details. “AA” insisted that he had been careful in outlining every facet of what happened, and that the strain of the process has been difficult.
“I realized why many victims don’t have the heart to denounce, because when they offer all those details they aren’t believed,” he said, explaining that every time he is asked to go over the details again, “it’s like going back and living what happened all over again.”
While Parma is behind bars, Rosa currently walks free under alleged house arrest, though he has been granted permission to leave both the province and the country on numerous occasions. “AA” credits this to the “political power” Rosa has, as he is friends with many rich and powerful people in Salta.
“AA” said he also made a canonical complaint in 2016, but “until now, neither the state nor the Church have called me to tell me anything,” he said.
He has received no compensation of any kind from either the state or the Church. When making his complaints, he said, “for civil cases the state paid” for his travel, and in the canonical case, “I paid from my pocket.”
Calling the suppression of the congregation earlier this year “something spectacular,” “AA” said nothing can repair the harm that was done to members, but “I was very happy” with the closure, because as he discovered only after leaving himself, there were many others who experienced the same “who really wanted to leave the community but couldn’t” summon the strength.
Now married with a family, “AA” insists that “I have everything they tried to take.” Every day is a struggle, he said, above all in dealing with the legal cases. But he said he continues to go through with it to protect other young people.
“It requires a lot of courage to do this because it is very tiring,” he said, “but the only joy is preventing this from happening to others.”
Similar to Zarza and Gyurkovitz, Chrystian Contreras Javier Gomez met the the Hermanos Discípulos de Jesús de San Juan Bautista when he was just 14 while traveling from his native Mexico to Argentina in 2008 and, attracted to the lifestyle, decided to enter.
Since he was too young, he came back to Argentina a year later to enter the community at the age of 15. That’s when he first met Rosa – referred to by some as “the Argentine Padre Pio.”
“I saw Father Augustin as a saint,” Contreras told Crux, explaining that the two became close during his first year in the order. So close, in fact that he didn’t suspect anything when Rosa asked him to get undressed and groped his genitals while allegedly checking for STDs.
At the time it didn’t seem untoward, he said, recalling how he was eventually drawn into shady financial activities that should have also raised flags, but which also seemed reasonable when his superiors explained it.
The way they managed money, he said, “wasn’t normal.”
“In a community where there are donations, the donors can deposit the money into an account and there is no legal problem,” he said. “But in this community, it didn’t work like that.”
In his order, they were often given cash that allegedly came from donors and were asked to carry it “like mules from one country to another, like someone who was hiding something.” Specifically, they carried it from Mexico into Argentina.
The first time Contreras did this, he said he was given around $20,000 in cash, and others were given more. They would stuff the money into the pockets of their habits, or put it in the frames of religious images, because “no one would distrust a priest.”
Some members carried money back and forth like this for 15 years, he said, recalling one time when there were around 50 brothers traveling, all of whom received large sums of cash. “It was a lot of money,” he said. “I can’t imagine all the money (they had).”
Believing they were “funds from God,” Contreras said that when his superiors told him the money was legit, “I believed it without doubt.” In hindsight, he said, “I realize that it’s not like this.”
Contreras said he realized the way money was managed was irregular after leaving, but it wasn’t until he spoke with another ex-member of the community who had overseen the order’s economic affairs for several years that he first heard it was drug money.
This ex-member, he said, informed him that the funds they carried weren’t donations, because while donations were deposited into a bank account, the money they carried, the man said, “was money they bleached, and it didn’t come from traceable sources. That’s why they didn’t put it into the bank account (in Mexico) but sent it to Argentina.”
The man confided in Contreras that Rosa and several higher-ups in the order “were involved with the narcos” in Mexico. In the past few months, it has been widely reported in Argentine media that Rosa had ties to infamous narcotrafficker, “El Chapo.”
During his third year in community, while a novice in Mexico, Contreras would experience a second, more obvious instance of sexual abuse by a permanent deacon in the order that would eventually prompt him to leave the order.
While staying at a fancy retreat house with a number of other novices for a few months, he was targeted by a deacon named Robert Moran, known in the community as “Brother Moses.” Contreras said Moran separated him from other brothers and raped him repeatedly over a two-month period.
During that time, he was forbidden from speaking with his family, from using a cell phone purchased for him by his grandmother, and he was increasingly isolated from other novices.
After his abuse, Contreras said he was forbidden from speaking to Rosa and was distanced from his fellow brothers. Frustrated and angry, he finally left in 2011.
Contreras said he was in a state of depression for two and a half years after leaving, refusing to discuss what happened until a priest friend came to visit and told him about others ex-members who had suffered similar abuse.
Reflecting on the sexual and psychological abuse he endured, Contreras said, “I felt responsible for what they did. I was so angry.” And this, he said, “is when I began to question whether to denounce this. Not only for myself, but for those who couldn’t speak.”
At first, he attempted to file a complaint to the police in Playa del Carmen, where he was living at the time. He was told to come back, since the person handling abuse cases involving minors was on vacation. When he returned, Contreras said the man charged with receiving his complaint spoke loudly so that others in the room could hear, exposing him as a victim of sexual abuse.
“There were a lot of people, so I felt humiliated, I felt exposed and I felt attacked after this,” he said, explaining that the feeling was so overwhelming, he decided to drop the civil complaint altogether.
“For me it was a very tense time,” he said, explaining that a few months later, while on a lengthy trip to Canada to clear his head, his house was robbed three times, with thieves stealing a cell phone, some documents and a sum of money he had left. A small sandal shop he owned was broken into and someone was shot in the doorway.
After the string of incidents, Contreras decided to leave Mexico entirely and moved to Canada, where in October 2018 he finally made a canonical complaint with the Archdiocese of Montreal, which was then sent to the Archdiocese of Salta, where the order was headquartered.
He was helped to file all of his paperwork by Martín de Elizalde OSB, bishop emeritus of Nueve de Julio, who was the Vatican-appointed official overseeing the community at the time. However, a year later, Contreras has heard nothing more about his case, or the deacon who abused him.
“I feel like I won with the closing of the institute, because it was on the basis of all the complaints from so many people…it was a fruit of telling the truth of what happened to me,” he said, but voiced doubt that his abuser would ever face justice.
“The person who abused me, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I don’t think anything, because they protect each other,” he said.
Sources close to the case have told Crux that Moran has been removed from ministry, however, his canonical fate is not yet clear.
Yet despite the lingering questions, Contreras said the suppression of the order was a big step, and one that gives him hope for the Church.
“They destroyed a lot of things in me, but I also learned a lot,” he said. “I learned a lot about things I would never allow to happen in my life again. I learned to not allow myself to be manipulated by people. It cost me a lot, but I understood.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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