ROME – In 1992, two boys attending minor seminary in Parana, in northeastern Argentina, reported that Father Justo Ilarraz, spiritual director for the seminarians, had sexually abused them.

The then-prefect of the seminary, Juan Alberto Piuggari, today archbishop of Parana, led them to the office of the then-head of the diocese, Archbishop Estanislao Esteban Karlic.

(Karlic, now 96, led the Argentine bishops’ conference between 1996 and 2002, and was created a cardinal in 2007.)

Estimates indicate that between 1984 and 1992, Ilarraz abused at least 50 children. In 1992, he confessed to having “amorous and abusive relationships with minor seminarians.”

To this day, he remains a priest, despite a 25-year prison sentence that came after his case led to the revision of the statutes of limitations for sexual abuse in Argentina.

“No one wanted to walk with us,” said Hernan Rausch, one of Ilaraz’s survivors who spoke out in a second process, in 1995. “Everyone was somehow involved, so each of them chose to defend themselves instead of supporting the victims.”

Despite having more than enough reasons to be angry at the Catholic Church, Rausch says he has directed his anger at the hierarchy, which “spends too much time on needless things, and too little time reading the Gospel.”

“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea,” Rausch said, quoting the book of Matthew.

His faith, Rausch would insist during his 90-minute video call with Crux, is unshakable, even if he struggles to go to Mass on Sundays. 

Hernan Rausch, one of the survivors of Father Justo José Ilarraz. (Credit: courtesy Rausch.)

But he is sometimes unable to trust priests knowing that the man who sexually abused him is still able to celebrate Mass and during that “sacred moment, be the representative of Christ on earth,” even if he is suspended from public ministry.

Karlic knew Ilarraz well: The two lived together, and in the early 1980s, the accused had been his personal driver. The priest was sent to Rome, where he attended a pontifical university to study missiology and wrote his final paper on children as new missionaries of the modern times.

In 1995, Karlic convened an official diocesan inquiry, swearing the victims to secrecy. As a result, Ilarraz was banned from the diocese by the church tribunal of Parana, and sent on a month-long spiritual retreat. 

Although some accounts say that the archbishop sent the information on Ilarraz to the Vatican, he wasn’t removed from the priesthood. Instead, he ended up in the northern diocese of Tucuman, where, in 2010, eight priests petitioned the then-archbishop of Parana to formally report him to civil authorities. Archbishop Mario Maulión reportedly promised to take action, but he did nothing and retired two months later.

In 2012, the media intervened: Investigative journalist Daniel Enz revealed Ilarraz’s alleged rape and sexual abuse of at least 50 boys, ages 12-14, from 1984 to 1992. The boys, from devout rural families, were by then grown men and several were willing to speak up.

Puiggari, the archbishop of Paraná, issued a statement expressing his “deep shame and immense sorrow” for Ilarraz’s offenses but defended the archdiocese’s handling of the case, citing “privacy rights,” “due process,” and “our knowledge of existing laws.” 

At the time, the reporting of sexual abuse of minors – clerical or otherwise – was not mandatory in Argentina.

Following the media report, a criminal case was opened against him. The defense tried to get the case dismissed on grounds the crime was outside of the statute of limitations, but the judge declined, calling the offenses human rights violations and citing the American Convention on Human Rights doctrine on child protection and Argentina’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But the criminal appeals court in Paraná ruled in favor of Ilarraz and dismissed the case. The lawyer for Karlic applauded the decision and defended the prelate’s actions, saying that Ilarraz had committed “a crime of private action,” and that the victims’ parents should have made the complaint.

The case didn’t end there, and Ilarraz was finally sentenced in 2018 to 25 years in prison. However, the priest is currently under house arrest, awaiting the result of an appeal. For Rausch, this is not a problem: “I don’t care if he’s in jail. The courts have acknowledged what he did to us, he cannot leave his house, and if he does, people know who he is and what he did.”

“But for the church, he is still a priest,” Rausch added. 

Puiggari sent the case to Rome in 2013, and there is still no resolution. Or, if there is, it has not been communicated to anyone in Argentina. Crux has been unable to get a response from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, known for being – even if unwillingly – a bottleneck when it comes to abuse cases. In 2019, the former CDF received over 1,000 allegations, 40 percent from Latin America. There are fewer than 20 priests working full time for the discipline office, and only a handful deal with cases in Spanish.

Though he sometimes grows tired, frustrated, angry, and disappointed, Rausch said he will not give up until there is a ruling from the Vatican. Even then, he says he will continue to work for improving the processing time to remove an abuser from the clerical state, and for the church to pay any compensation that is due.

And he will continue to fight from within the church, ready to walk with other survivors, so that they don’t have to walk alone as he did.

“God’s forgiveness is not the conclusion of a crime,” he said. “If it were, we’d all rape one another, murder, rob, bribe, and then simply chalk it up to being forgiven by God. Christ forgave the Good Thief who was crucified next to him and asked for forgiveness. But Christ did not perform a ‘miracle,’ did not bring the man down from the cross. The thief paid for his crimes here on earth.”

Asked if he wants to speak with Pope Francis, Rausch said he is willing but doesn’t need to. “I want closure, I want expediency, I want transparency. Not a hug.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma