ROME/MEXICO CITY – From the time she was 10 until she turned 17, Maria says she was sexually abused by a priest in San Ambrosio in the Mexican state of Sonora. Years after the local bishop refused to investigate her allegations, her abuser was finally removed from the clerical state.
For the past two years, she’s been asked by several abuse prevention experts to share her story, including before several hundred South American bishops.
(“Maria” is not her real name. Although she identifies herself by name in various Church settings focused on prevention, she requested her name not be identified in print as she has two children and, in a city as small as hers, she prefers discretion.)
Her tale can only be defined as gut-wrenching: She was a child when the abuse began, she says, and “it was a Calvary that lasted seven years.”
“I don’t remember any treatment from the parish priest towards me other than abusive, in every sense of the word,” she told Crux. “Internally, I tried to project a paternal image onto him as he told me with his mouth that he ‘loved me’ and that he would never harm me. [It was] an image distorted in the perverse eyes of that man who, at the same time, hurt me with his hands.”
The details of the abuse, including its frequency and nature, are things she said she’s trying to leave behind, so she avoided going into them during a conversation with Crux in Mexico City in November.
But when she addressed the bishops of a Central American country last year at the request of a Vatican official, no one questioned what had happened to her. Nor did anyone challenge her when she talked to the Mexican bishops’ conference during a general assembly.
Her abuser, she said, was Alfredo Rosas, who was removed from the clerical state in 2015. But getting there wasn’t easy.
She said the second man who hurt her, the one who ignored her allegations saying that he needed “a second case to act,” Bishop Felipe Padilla Cardona, still heads the diocese of Ciudad Obregón, where, accompanied by her mother, Maria first filed an allegation several years ago.
Today when she speaks, she focuses on the cover-up and neglect she ascribes to Cardona, who, she said, had a “cold, rigid face, with a permanent frown” when he heard the allegations.
The prelate’s response was a Gospel quote, apparently blaming her for the abuse: “You must be innocent as a dove, but wise as a snake, [because] you are beautiful.”
“I felt like I was completely alone, that I had come to the bishop with one problem and that I was leaving with two,” she said. “I felt like I had arrived looking for hope and justice, and instead I was being judged for my physical aspect, which, in the eyes of my bishop, was responsible for what had happened to me.”
She promised herself never again to seek help from the Church.
Months after going to Cardona, she began studying Sciences of Family in the John Paul II institute in the state of Monterrey.
“Being a multidisciplinary, completely anthropological subject, my internal situation was present in every lecture,” she said. “I tried to look for therapeutic help, but regrettably I was unable to find the right people.”
In April 2014, she had the “grace” of traveling to Rome for the canonizations of St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII. As she would later put it, “the popes answered my prayers, they saved my life.”
On the eve of the canonization Mass, Maria and the group she was traveling with met with Mexican Father Miguel Funes, at the time an official of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Among other things, it’s the office that handles cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors.
That meeting, Crux was able to confirm, wasn’t a coincidence.
The group shared a meal with Funes, during which one of the pilgrims told the priest that she believed “the people who are abused do something to be abused.”
This caused Maria to snap: “You are wrong, I did absolutely nothing to be abused,” she recalled saying. Funes approached her, and the two talked for hours.
“He played a key role in my reconstruction of a loving image of God, an image that had been damaged every time I saw my aggressor consecrate with the same hands with which he hurt me during seven years,” she said.
After going back to Mexico, a priest by the name of Charles Carpenter, originally from the United States but who has been in the diocese of Ciudad Obregón since 1978, and a lawyer both reached out to her. They guided Maria through the canonical process that had informally started when Funes spoke with her in Rome.
“My aggressor confessed the abuses,” she said. “His words were, textually ‘Yes, I did it, but I never thought I was causing so much pain’.”
“In January 2015 I received a call from Cardona,” the bishop who had ignored her when she was first strong enough to speak up. “He informed me that Alfred Rosas had been removed from the clerical state. Very gracefully, he read the decree in Latin.”
Despite many moments of what she called “spiritual darkness,” Maria today is strong in her faith. She told Crux that she saw it as a “gift from the crucified Christ” revealed to her “in innumerable spiritual experiences that the pain of flagellation is the same pain he felt each time I was abused.”
“I went through some hard times during which I was angry with God, with Mary, with the Church,” she said. “I had to question, shout, demand, tear myself up in front of an image of the risen Christ, in front of the Holy Sacrament.”
Despite the mistreatment she received from Cardona, today she’s thankful for several members of the clergy, including Funes; Carpenter; Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, another CDF official who played a key role in documenting the scandals of the Catholic Church in Chile; Fathers Daniel Portillo and Hans Zollner, directors of the centers for child protection in Mexico’s Pontifical Catholic University and Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University; and Mexican Archbishops Alfonso Miranda and Rogelio Cabrera.
Portillo, Zollner, Cabrera and Miranda were all speakers in a Nov. 6-8 seminar on the protection of children in Latin America, where the inaction of many members of the hierarchy was denounced, in front of some two dozen bishops participating.
“We bishops need to acknowledge the mistakes of the past: we weren’t conscious of the seriousness of the issue, and the solutions we gave weren’t the right ones,” said Cabrera, of Monterrey, president of the Mexican bishops’ conference and treasurer of the Latin American Conference of Bishops (CELAM), during the conference.
Every bishop who’s been a bishop for more than 10 years, he said, “has to confess that our solutions were not the best.”
According to Portillo, who organized the seminary, there are churches in Latin America that are “doing nothing” when it comes to protecting children from abuse.
“Even today, it is shameful to know that there are countries that have done nothing,” he told Crux. “That is, absolutely nothing. They have not begun to generate awareness, nor have they begun to recognize the damage we have caused nor the guilt we have that we are not thinking about what we can do to address this.”
During the conference, no one challenged Bishop Luis Manuel Alí Herrera, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Bogota and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors when he said that the entire region has basically done “nothing.”
“We’re in 2019, and in some places and spaces of our Church, nothing is happening,” he told the conference.
Some 400 people took part in the seminar, and no one challenged Cabrera’s or Miranda’s allegations. If nothing else, several confirmed them.
At least three high-ranking Church officials in attendance told Crux that in Mexico, 50 percent of the local episcopacy is guilty of at least mismanaging allegations if not actual criminal cover-up.
When Crux asked about Cardona’s situation, one expert said he’s among many concrete cases that make the implementation of Pope Francis’s Vos estis lux mundi, known in English as You are the light of the world, difficult.
The May 9, 2019 law establishes new procedural norms to combat sexual abuse and to ensure that bishops and religious superiors are held accountable for their actions. It stipulates that when a bishop is accused of mishandling an abuse allegation case, his superior- or the metropolitan archbishop of his jurisdiction- has to investigate the accused bishop.
“It’s impossible to implement it in Mexico,” a Mexican participant in the seminar told Crux. “How can you expect for bishops to police bishops when here, most of those who don’t have a skeleton in their closets, actually have a dead body?”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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