Two priests accused of sexually abusing deaf children at a Catholic-run school in Argentina were found guilty on Monday and each sentenced to more than four decades in prison.
A three-judge panel in the city of Mendoza sentenced Nicola Corradi to 42 years in prison and Horacio Corbacho to 45 years for abusing children at the Antonio Provolo Institute for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Lujan de Cuyo, a municipality in northwestern Argentina.
The court said the sentences took into account the aggravating circumstances that the priests were responsible for the children’s wellbeing, as well as the fact that the victims were minors.
Gardener Armando Gomez was also sentenced to 18 years in prison, in a case that has shaken the church in the homeland of Pope Francis. The victims were 10 former students.
Pope Francis has not commented publicly on the case, but in 2017, the Vatican sent two Argentine priests to investigate what happened in Mendoza. Dante Simon, a judicial vicar, told The Associated Press that the “horrible” allegations are “more than plausible”.
He said the pontiff expressed his sadness and told him that “he was very worried about this situation”.
Corradi, an 83-year-old Italian, and Corbacho, a 59-year-old Argentine, were arrested in 2016. Several other staff at the school were also taken into custody at the time. The priests declined to make statements in advance of the judges’ ruling, but appeared sombre as they arrived in the courtroom, with Corradi in a wheelchair, his gaze fixed on the ground, according to the Associated Press news agency.
Outside the court, a group of young people waited for the ruling with banners supporting the victims.
During the proceedings, former students, young men and women, testified that the priests touched and sometimes raped them in their dormitories and school bathrooms. They also said they were forced to look at pornographic images. They said they were warned to keep quiet.
Investigators found records of complaints made by parents that were not followed up on, photographs of a naked girl on Corbacho’s computer and chains he allegedly used to subdue one girl.
In a report submitted to the Vatican in June of 2017, Simon requested the maximum canonical penalty for Corradi and Corbacho, that they be made to “resign directly by the Holy Father”. His report must be reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Corradi, who was the director of the institute, has been under house arrest because of his age, while Corbacho and Gomez were being held in a jail in the provincial capital of Mendoza.
While the case has shocked Argentines, the revelation that Corradi had been previously accused of similar offences at a sister agency, the Antonio Provolo Institute in Verona, Italy, but was never charged, has belied what critics call an insidious problem within the church’s management.
Since at least 2009, when the Italian Provolo students went public with allegations of abuse and named names, the Vatican has known about accusations against Corradi. The Vatican ordered an investigation and sanctioned four accused priests and 20 others, but Corradi was not one of them.
The defendants, who pleaded innocence, said the students’ stories were improbable.
Many in Argentina have asked why Pope Francis did not remove Corradi as the authority at the Mendoza school once he learned of the allegations in Verona.
Corradi’s name appeared again in 2014 in a letter written to the Pope by deaf students in Verona that reiterated the potential danger he posed in Mendoza.
“The Argentine court has given the traumatised children of Provolo a measure of justice that the Catholic Church failed to give them,” Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online research database BishopAccountability.org, told the Associated Press.
“The horror of Provolo is twofold: the torture of the children and the Church’s failure to prevent it. We hope the prosecutors now will launch a criminal investigation of the archbishops and other church leaders who knew or should have known that the school was being run by a child molester,” she said.
Doyle added that “the Pope too must accept responsibility for the unimaginable suffering of these children. He ignored repeated warnings that Corradi was in Argentina.”
In another case that raised questions for the pontiff, a bishop once close to the pope has announced he would arrive back in Argentina on Tuesday to respond to prosecutor’s allegations of sex abuse.
A prosecutor accused Zanchetta of “aggravated continuous sexual abuse” of two seminarians, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. He has denied the charges, which don’t involve minors.
Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta’s canon law attorney, Javier Belda Iniesta, issued a statement Saturday saying the bishop would fully cooperate with authorities.
The Vatican has insisted the first accusation of sex abuse was only lodged against Zanchetta in late 2018. But the Associated Press and the newspaper Tribune of Salta have reported that documents and testimony from diocesan officials raised credible allegations of inappropriate sexual misconduct well before then.