SÃO PAULO, Brazil – A new association of abuse survivors in Bolivia, created in the wake of revelations last May of more than 80 cases of abuse perpetrated by a Jesuit priest over four decades, has filed a lawsuit against the Society of Jesus.
“The Jesuits tried to cover-up the cases for many years. They had information on what was going on and failed to take it to the authorities. We consider that they committed crimes in a systematic way and now they have to take responsibility for them,” said Wilder Flores, president of the new association and himself an abuse survivor.
On Oct. 10, the Bolivian court system accepted the lawsuit and opened a case against the Society of Jesus. An inquiry presently is being carried out. A spokesman for the Jesuits told Crux the order is committed to solidarity with survivors, and is cooperating fully with both criminal and civil investigations.
The new survivors’ association in Bolivia was legally formed by 25 victims, but it claims to bring together more than 100 survivors. In turn, those people say they’re in touch with an even larger number of victims who haven’t decided yet to join the group, but who’ve been providing information.
Many of the founding members studied at Colegio Juan XXIII, a Jesuit boarding school in Cochabamba, Bolivia, whose principal for several years was the late Spanish-born Jesuit Father Alfonso Pedrajas, known as “Padre Pica.”
Padre Pica’s diary, discovered by his nephew in Spain and shared with the Spanish newspaper El Pais in April of 2023, described numerous cases of abuse he perpetrated between the 1960s and the 2000s. At least 85 minors were victimized by him, most of them at the Colegio.
Flores was one of Padre Pica’s victims. The crime happened in 1993, when Pedrajas had already left the school.
“I was 13 when he came to visit Juan XXIII. Padre Pica was introduced to us as a very important person. He spent one week there,” Flores told Crux.
Most students came from poor local families, including the children of mining workers. The school was seen as an opportunity to leave poverty behind.
“One night he came to me. That’s when the abuse happened. I cried for hours. It was like a nightmare,” he recalled. The following night, Flores said he saw when Pedrajas entered their dorm and took one of his colleagues out.
During those years, Padre Pica was in charge of the novices. Flores said he now asks himself how “an inveterate pedophile could have been placed in charge of teenagers after years of abuse.”
“The principal was another Spanish-born priest and they were friends. I’m sure he knew Pedrajas was an abuser, but he let him visit the school anyway,” he said.
In Padre Pica’s diary, he mentions that he confessed his crimes to his superior and to other Society of Jesus’s members on different occasions. None of them, however, denounced him to the authorities.
“He refers to 85 victims, but we believe that there were more than 150 at the school alone. He was compulsive,” Flores affirmed.
The principal mentioned by Wilder Flores was Father Francesc Peris, a Catalan priest who had already faced charges in Europe before being transferred to Bolivia, where he committed new crimes. He was publicly denounced by some of his victims and moved from office.
“Father Carlos Villamil, who replaced him, was an abuser as well,” Flores said.
For more than two decades, he said, five of the Juan XXIII principals abused students.
As it was in the process of consolidating as a group, the association received reports of other cases involving Jesuit pedophiles and the number of accused priests grew to nine. Given that there were so many perpetrators of the same order, the association decided to file a lawsuit against the Society of Jesus in Bolivia.
Only two of the accused priests, including Peris, are still alive, but former Jesuit provincials are also named in the lawsuit for their alleged failures to intervene.
According to Father Sergio Montes, a spokesperson for the Society of Jesus in Bolivia, since 2018 the Jesuits have gradually established several instruments and structures in order to investigate and deal with potential abuse cases, following the Catholic Church’s concern with such issues.
Those protocols, he told Crux, ensured that some of the cases involving Jesuits were adequately investigated in a canonical process and after that they were publicly disclosed, with all documents being sent to the prosecutors. Pedrajas’s case, according to Montes, had just undergone a preliminary canonical investigation before its public eruption.
The accusations of cover-up are being investigated by prosecutors, Montes said. Former provincials have already given their testimony to the authorities. The Jesuits, he went on, provided all documents they had concerning the cases denounced to the prosecutors.
“The offices of the provincial curia have been raided five times, as well as a community in the city of Cochabamba. Everything that may or may not have been known will be determined with the conclusion of the prosecutors’ inquiry,” Montes said.
The Society of Jesus can only testify about the cases it was able to investigate between 2019 and 2023, he said.
“Concerning other cases that were denounced last year, all of them will be investigated by the civil authorities and we’ll know more about them,” Montes said.
Jesuits who are found guilty of a crime, after a fair investigation and judicial process, will have to submit to what is determined by the civil legislation, as the provincial in Bolivia has stated since the beginning of this crisis, he said.
“On the other hand, it should be noted that in Bolivian legislation crimes are imputable only to people, not to institutions. The order cannot assume criminal responsibility in this regard because it corresponds to each person,” Montes declared.
Despite that, the Society of Jesus in Bolivia expresses its solidarity first and foremost with the victims and has apologized for the execrable crimes that some Jesuits committed, Montes concluded, adding that the order has “made even more efforts to strengthen its policies and protocols for the prevention of abuse.”
He said that the Society of Jesus has been providing legal and psychological support to the victims.
Flores alleges that the Jesuits only opened the current channels of communication for the victims after the Pedrajas’s scandal emerged and that “they only accept responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by the already deceased members of the order, while they try to cover-up the cases involving living priests.”
“We have been accused of having personal ambitions, but the only thing we want is that no more children end up being abused,” Flores said.
He said the association has received reports of abuse by members of other orders, but the group doesn’t have the necessary structure to deal with them, which is why it’s focusing on the Jesuits.
“We know it will be a long struggle, and we want to be prepared,” Flores said.