ROME – Bolivia’s left-wing president, Luis Arce, has written Pope Francis to inform him that the country will restrict the entry of missionary priests facing accusations of sexual abuse, pending a review of bilateral agreements between Bolivia and the Holy See to make sure that crimes of abuse and cover-up are not repeated.
Arce’s three-page letter to the pontiff was motivated in large part by the recent case of a Spanish Jesuit named Alfonso Pedrajas Moreno, who had served in Bolivia beginning in 1971 and who died in 2009. Recently Pedrajas’s personal diary has come to light in which he described abusing scores of minors, perhaps as many as 85, over the course of his career.
Most of the alleged abuses would have occurred at the Juan XXIII boarding school for poor rural children, located in Cochabamba in the center of the country.
In the diary, portions of which were published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Pedrajas also described how his abuse was concealed by ecclesiastical authorities, including members of his own Jesuit order.
The Jesuits in Bolivia have apologized for both the abuse and the handling of the case, and pledged to cooperate with all investigations.
Bolivian prosecutor Wilfredo Chávez recently said there are now 23 Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse in the country, including one who was recently subjected to three months of pretrial detention.
Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, one of Pope Francis’s top sex abuse investigators and an official with the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently arrived in Bolivia to review the handling of abuse cases. Bertomeu is a veteran of such reviews, having previously investigated the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, and also the infamous case of ex-priest Fernando Karadima in Chile.
According to an official in the Bolivian bishops’ conference, plans for Bertomeu’s visit to the country have been in the works for three years, and thus are not directly related to the present scandal.
In his letter to the pope, Arce demanded that the Vatican provide access to “all files and information” pertaining to the Pedrajas case, as well as those of other clerics accused of sexual abuse and misconduct.
“I am consternated and indignant over the facts which have recently come to light in our pluri-national state,” Arce wrote, according to portions of his letter quoted in media reports.
“As you can understand, Brother Francis, this situation has provoked deep pain, repudiation and frustration within the Bolivian population, sentiments that I share as the president of my country,” Arce wrote.
“This isn’t a matter of errors or behavioral deviations; these are crimes that damage children for their entire lives, and also damage the Church,” the Bolivian leader wrote. “Precisely for this reason, we have to move from pronouncements to concrete actions, so that there will be justice and these very serious crimes won’t be committed again, using the faith and the Church to seek impunity.”
Two weeks ago, Arce and his Movement for Socialism party presented a bill in the national parliament to lift the statute of limitations to prosecute sexual abuse crimes and to create a national commission to investigate abuse claims. Reports suggest the government is also seeking to open a conversation about financial compensation for victims.
Some critics believe that Arce and his party may be exploiting the recent revelations for ideological ends.
Last Friday, a “Council of Laity” in Bolivia released a statement demanding that complaints against ecclesiastical institutions not be used as a “a smokescreen to cover up other important problems we face in our country.”
The statement calls on Bolivians to reject “the unfounded accusations and attacks against the Catholic Church” by groups that do not profess the Catholic faith or are guided by ideologies, recalling that “crimes must be tackled on an individual basis, without judging the institutions or works of the Church as a whole.”