BUENOS AIRES — Four Uruguayan priests have been suspended for sexual abuse of minors following a Church-led investigation that has uncovered 44 accusations against 40 priests over 70 years.
The probe was ordered earlier this year by Cardinal Daniel Sturla, the Archbishop of Montevideo, following a three-part Uruguayan TV documentary series that claimed to reveal a cover-up in the Church.
The series, Santo y Seña, was inspired by the U.S. movie Spotlight, which tells the story of the journalistic exposé of clerical sex abuse in 2001.
In April the bishops created a dedicated phone line to allow people to step forward and make the accusations, promising that they would be investigated.
The bishops reported Wednesday that 44 cases have so far come to light, 18 of which referred to events more than 40 years ago, and 16 between 20 and 40 years ago.
In five cases the allegations of sexual misconduct fell within the past 10 years, but none of these involved minors.
Twenty of the cases related to religious orders and were investigated by the superiors concerned while the other 24 cases related to diocesan clergy and were investigated by their bishops, the statement notes.
A number of cases could not be investigated because the alleged victims did not want to give details, wanting only to be heard and understood, the bishops said. Of the 40 priests identified as a result of the calls, 20 are dead and nine are still being looked into, while some of the cases proved baseless following investigation.
In none of the cases of abuse of minors has an accusation been referred to the police, either by the alleged victims or by the Church, because they fall outside Uruguay’s statute of limitations, meaning that the alleged abuses took place too long ago to be considered crimes.
In the last five years no cases have come to light of priests abusing minors, Sturla said, adding that “this doesn’t mean none has happened.”
But as a result of the investigation the Church has suspended from active ministry four priests “so that they cannot harm anyone,” the secretary-general of the Uruguay bishops’ conference, Milton Trócolli, told journalists.
“Of those four cases, two were with people who at the time of the abuse were minors, and two were adults. In the case of the minors, the cases fall outside the statute of limitations while in the case of the adults we urged them to report the matter to the authorities, but they didn’t,” Trócolli added.
Trócolli said that following a “fact-gathering” phase if there is evidence or likelihood of the complaint being true, it is referred to Rome, which then gives the go-ahead for the canon law process leading to the suspension of the priests.
Sturla said he felt “deep pain and shame” at the cases.
“Beyond the fact that the Church demands of its priests and consecrated men and women a higher moral standard, this is a human drama that must be attended to, because it involves people causing so many wounds and pain,” he told journalists.
The bishops also announced a new Child Protection Commission within their Department of Catholic Education, which is working to create a safe environment for minors within church institutions in Uruguay.
They also noted that Pope Francis has asked all bishops’ conferences to observe a day of penance to ask forgiveness of the victims of sexual abuse of minors, and that in Uruguay this will be held on 1 March 2017, to coincide with Lent.
However, they added, “our commitment is permanent, so that these situations never again arise in any church environment.”