Mexicans haunted by church abuse
Ex-priest says efforts to get Vatican to investigate sex abuse claims ignored for years.
Last Modified: 15 Apr 2010 03:44 GMT

Alberto Athie, a former Mexican priest, took the difficult decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church following his investigations into a high-profile paedophile priest.

He holds up the letter he wrote 13 years ago to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It details senior Mexican priest Marcial Maciel's sexual abuse of young boys.

As the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Maciel was one of the most influential of world Catholic figures before his death in 2008.

When Athie tried to deliver the letter to the Vatican, he was told that Cardinal Ratzinger was too busy to see him. Ratzinger's staff told him to show no one else the contents of the correspondence.

In his relentless efforts to get the Vatican to investigate the sex abuse cases, Athie persuaded his friend, Mexican Bishop Carlos Talavera, to take the letter to Ratzinger. Talavera later informed him of Ratzinger's response:

"I am sorry but this case cannot be investigated because Father Maciel is a great friend of the Holy Father and has done much good for the church. I am sorry but it isn't prudent."

A charismatic figure, Maciel brought priests and other material benefits to the church and was repeatedly honoured, despite allegations of child abuse and drug addiction.

He enjoyed a close relationship with Pope John Paul II, who described him in 1994 as a model for the young.

However after years of dodging complaints, Maciel was finally investigated by the Vatican in 2004. Two years later Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, banished Maciel from the ministry - nine years after the initial complaint.

It later emerged that Maciel had abused victims during four decades and fathered three children. Two of his sons say Maciel also sexually abused them.

On the move

Athie maintains that the Marciel was not the only paedophile priest in Mexico that the Vatican decided to ignore. He claims that the church has a long history of moving priests accused of sexual abuse from one parish to another to avoid controversy.

He says that the strategy has helped church leaders keep one step ahead of complaints, and has allowed them to continue abusing new victims.

Maciel allegedly abused some 200 young seminarians and children over four decades

Cardinal Norberto Rivera, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, recently declared that "the Archdiocese of Mexico will not defend or tolerate delinquents, but will make sure that the civil authorities act with the full force of the law".

However, Rivera himself wrote a letter of good conduct allowing Nicolas Aguilar, accused of being one of the most notorious child abusers in the Mexican priesthood, to escape to the United States.

Aguilar has repeatedly found new places to continue working as a priest, on a journey of abuse that took him from Mexico City to Los Angeles, and then to Puebla, where he was still preaching in small villages in 2006, despite 19 legal complaints of lewd acts committed against US minors.

While Aguilar was protected from prosecution, one of his victims was treated quite differently.

Joaquin Mendez says he was a 13-year-old altar boy when Aguilar raped him. He went to the home of the local bishop to complain, but got no support.

"They put me in a room in the district Chapultepec to the side of the bishop's house. There were four priests in the room with me. They led out my father and mother. They sat me down and interrogated me. They went out and told my father that it wasn't clear what had happened to me and that they weren't going to do anything."

Athie believes the pope is the only person who can restore the church's moral credibility, though he is the same man who ignored his pleas for justice 13 years ago.

"What will Ratzinger do? Will he deny this and delegitimize the complaints of society, regarding them as gossip and taunts without reason, as he is trying to do, or will he take the responsibility as head of the church and make sure that this never happens? This is his dilemma."

It's a dilemma that appears to becoming increasingly complicated as new cases of sexual abuses perpetrated by priests continue to emerge.

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