New accusations of sexual abuse against Jesuits in Bolivia

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Following the publication of a report by the Spanish newspaper El País that documented the serial sexual abuse of 89 victims committed in Bolivia by a Jesuit priest, new accusations have been made against other priests.

The scandal came to light when the nephew of the deceased Spanish Jesuit priest, Alfonso Pedrajas Moreno, found a diary among his personal effects that reveals the acts of abuse. The diary also showed that the Jesuit authorities were aware of the abuse and covered it up.

Both the Society of Jesus and the Bolivian government are pursuing the new cases.

In the last week, a complaint of abuse was filed with the Bolivian public prosecutor’s office against Jesuit Father Luis María Roma Padrosa while Archbishop Alejandro Mestre, also a Jesuit, was accused of sexual abuse in a second complaint.

Both complaints were filed by former Jesuit provincial Osvaldo Chirveches.

“There are two cases that we had already investigated, we have already received the response from the General Curia and we have already published the results,” Chirveches explained. The next step is for the prosecutor’s office to work with the material from these investigations.

Mestre, who died in 1988, was secretary general of the Bolivian Bishops’ Conference in the 1980s, auxiliary bishop of Sucre (1976–1982), and later coadjutor archbishop of the capital La Paz (1986–1987).

The case against Roma came to light in 2019 through an investigation by the Spanish EFE news agency.

Although the number of victims is not known, Roma was accused of abusing minors between the ages of 7 and 12 in the town of Charagua, in eastern Bolivia. The complaint was supported by photographic records that were owned by the priest.

According to the Bolivian newspaper Página Siete (Page Seven), the case wasn’t reported to the public prosecutor’s office for four years: ”Neither the Church nor the State launched a public investigation or judicial proceedings.”

The Jesuits in Bolivia issued a statement May 14 detailing the steps taken in Roma’s case following the allegations presented to them in February 2019 by an EFE agency journalist.

The Society of Jesus stated that after receiving the photographic material now in the hands of the public prosecutor’s office — a preliminary investigation was initiated and an investigative commission was formed that decided to suspend the accused from the public exercise of the priestly ministry and remove him from all contact with minors.

The investigative commission conducted interviews, inspections, reviewed documents, and had a psychiatric evaluation performed. It also provided a format to hear possible complaints from victims, but none were received.

Once the investigation was completed, the final report was sent along with all the documentation to the General Curia of the Society of Jesus in Rome for study and consultation with the Congregation (now the Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In September 2022, the plausibility of the allegations was determined.

To date, the Jesuits explained, no complaints or testimonies from victims in the Roma case have been received, and so they reiterated the request to those who may have information about the case to file the complaint with the public prosecutor’s office.

The Jesuits also expressed their availability to care for the victims and provide the necessary accompaniment.

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Role of the Bolivian government

In a press conference, the attorney general of the State of Bolivia, Juan Lanchipa, acknowledged that eight complaints have been received. Besides Pedrajas, Roma, and Mestre, the Jesuits Luis Tó and Antonio Gausset were named.

The attorney general reported that all cases deal with accusations of sexual abuse and expressed his concern about the “negligence that this Catholic organization has had by not reporting these incidents in a timely manner” and not providing protection to the accused.

For his part, the general prosecutor of Bolivia, Wilfredo Chávez, said that “there is a duty to history and to the victims” to investigate sexual abuse committed by clergymen and the “systematic cover-up.”

The Bolivian attorney general’s office has recently requested the collaboration of the Spanish state attorney general’s office to dig deeper into the investigation. This is because in Bolivia the statute of limitations for crimes has not expired, and “the Inter-American Court has determined that, in these cases, rape is equivalent to crimes against humanity.”

What is sought with this collaboration is to be able to have access to the investigative material obtained by El País through the nephew of Pedrajas and even to the diary itself, where the priest acknowledged the abuse.

The president of Bolivia, Luis Arce, condemned what has taken place, called for “severely punishing” cases of pedophilia in the Jesuit order and urged “all agencies required by law to investigate.”

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After the investigation on Pedrajas published by El País, the newspaper received the testimony of a victim, who reported that the sexual abuse also involved priests Francesc Peris and Carlos Villamil (deceased), both Jesuits from the community at John XXIII school in Cochabamba where Pedrajas was principal. However, no complaints have yet been filed with the Bolivian public prosecutor’s office.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.