ROME – When it comes to fighting clerical sexual abuse, unity creates strength. At least, that’s what the Archdiocese of Mexico City and the local chapter of the Survivors Networks of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) believe, as the two recently announced they will join forces to protect children and young adults.
“As Pope Francis has repeatedly said, one of the commitments of the Church in our time is to do all that is needed to root out the abuses that might happen in the center of the Church and our society,” begins a joint statement released on Monday by SNAP Mexico and the archdiocese.
Signed by Joaquin Aquilar, director of SNAP Mexico, and Marilu Esponda, director of communications for the archdiocese, the statement also says they will work together to promote initiatives and strengthen practices to protect children, youth and vulnerable adults from sexual crimes.
“Among the many initiatives, we’re working on a protocol that will help to address cases that might arise, as well as support for the victims, creating conscience and educating people on the need to protect children and vulnerable people in our homes, parishes, schools, hospitals and other institutions,” they said.
Aguilar told Crux that it was SNAP that first reached out to the Church, after seeing Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes’s strong commitment when addressing clerical sexual abuse. The prelate was installed as head of the archdiocese in February, replacing Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, and one of the first public announcements he made was on the suspension of a priest accused of abuse.
“We wouldn’t be working with him if we didn’t think his commitment is honest,” Aguliar told Crux.
SNAP Mexico, he said, has had some victories when it comes to changing laws and practices, but they decided the time had come to try to work alongside the Catholic Church to speed up some of those processes, particularly when it comes to setting new protocols.
The two sides worked together to find “common ground,” and they found it: “Protecting children and addressing the cases that might arise,” he said. “From that point forth, keeping this goal in mind, we began working together.”
“We’ve had several meetings after the cardinal spoke about ‘zero tolerance’ with cases of pedophilia,” Esponda told Crux. “There was good disposition to dialogue on both sides, and we realized that we agreed on a fundamental matter: our honest will to prevent abuse and to promote responsibility in dealing with, and resolving, these cases.”
Esponda is convinced that when it comes to being close to victims and combating pedophilia “that occurs in many places” beyond the Church, such as within the family or in schools, that “unity makes strength.”
“SNAP Mexico has experience in several cases that many times are surrounded by silence,” she said. “We want to work tirelessly with every institution that has good will to promote respect towards human dignity. From here, [we found] our mutual commitment to eradicate this problem.”
According to Aguilar, SNAP Mexico is related to SNAP USA, which has sometimes had a contentious relationship with Church authorities and has been accused by some pundits of anti-Catholic bias, but it’s also independent. The group began operating in the country in 2006, and Aguilar said he’s been a part of it from day one, “working against the tide.” For this reason, he insisted, it’s necessary to “take advantage” of the new cardinal’s commitment.
“As Catholics, we want for the Church to finally heal,” he said.
A survivor of clerical sexual abuse himself, Aguilar was once perceived as an enemy of the archdiocese, having filed a lawsuit in the United States against its former archbishop, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, as well as American Cardinal Roger Mahony, the emeritus Archbishop of Los Angeles.
A priest who reportedly abused Aguilar when he was 12, Father Nicolás Aguilar, was transferred to L.A. in the late 1980s. The lawsuit alleged that the Mexican prelate had informed the American about the priest’s sexual abuses, and neither took action.
In a deposition as part of the lawsuit, Mahony denied knowing about the allegations or of being complicit in Aguilar fleeing the country to avoid prosecution. He also denied that he or his aides did anything improper in their handling of the accusations.
The priest is accused of having abused at least 60 minors, both in Mexico and in the U.S. According to the online platform Bishopaccountability.org, California police estimated that Aguilar-Rivera sexually abused at least 26 children in two Los Angeles parishes during his nine months in the archdiocese.
He was charged with abuse in Mexico in 1997 and was convicted of the charges in 2003, but he was not sentenced because a judge determined the charges to be too old. He was allowed to remain in ministry until July 2009, when his laicization was announced.
Asked about how the archdiocese responded to his approaching the Church to work together now, the director of SNAP Mexico said that they did so “with availability.”
“One of the things we have seen is at the end of the day, we all want to protect future generations and address the cases that arise,” Aguliar said. “One of the problems that the institution, in general, has had, is not addressing them.”
Yet the newly appointed cardinal of Mexico City is “demonstrating that even beyond reforming the entire system, one thing more is required: will. If other ecclesiastical authorities had the will that Cardinal Aguiar has, the situation globally would be different.”