Pope Francis’ role in Argentina’s most famous case of priestly sex abuse is coming under renewed scrutiny, just as he faces the greatest crisis of his papacy over the Catholic Church’s troubled legacy of cover-ups and allegations he himself sided with the accused.
Francis, who at the time was cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in 2010 commissioned a four-volume, 2,000-plus page forensic study of the legal case against convicted priest Julio Grassi, which concluded the reverend was innocent, that his victims were lying and that the case never should have gone to trial.
Church officials in Argentina say that the study obtained by The Associated Press — bound volumes complete with reproductions of Johannes Vermeer paintings on the covers — was for internal Church use only.
But the volumes purportedly ended up on the desks of some court justices who were ruling on legal appeals from Grassi.
Despite the study, in March 2017 the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and a 15-year prison sentence for Grassi, once a celebrity priest who ran homes for street children across the nation.
The study, and Francis’ role in the Grassi case, have taken on new relevance following fresh allegations by a former Vatican ambassador that Francis, and a long line of Vatican officials before him, covered up the sexual misconduct of a prominent US cardinal.
Neither Francis nor the Vatican has responded to the allegations that Francis rehabilitated ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from sanctions in 2013. The Vatican didn’t respond to a request for comment about Francis’ role in the Grassi case.
In an exclusive interview with AP, Grassi’s victim, Gabriel, said he is still waiting for Francis to acknowledge his pain, given the Supreme Court has now ruled that he indeed was assaulted by Grassi when he was 13.
“I’d like for the Church to say something, even though I don’t expect it will,” Gabriel said, sitting next to his psychiatrist. “No one ever reached out to me,” he said. “No-one bothered.”
Francis, a former archbishop of Buenos Aires, wasn’t Grassi’s bishop and bore no direct responsibility for him. But in 2006, he was quoted by the now-defunct local magazine Veintitres as saying the accusations against Grassi were “informative viciousness against him, a condemnation by the media.”
He said he would withhold judgment pending the outcome of the court case, but Grassi himself testified that Bergoglio had “never let go of my hand” throughout the legal process.
Under Bergoglio’s presidency, in 2010 the Argentine Synod enlisted a leading criminal defence attorney, Marcelo Sancinetti, to research a counter-inquiry into the prosecutors’ case against Gabriel and two other former residents of Grassi’s ‘Happy Children’ homes (run by the Fundación Felices Los Niños), whose cases were thrown out in the initial trial.
In the study, Sancinetti concluded that not only weren’t the accusations against Grassi sufficiently proven, “the falsity of each one of the accusations is objectively verifiable.”
In the four tomes, which were produced at an annual clip from 2010-2013, Sancinetti accused Gabriel of changing his story and trying to extort Grassi. But a court years earlier had already thrown out a criminal complaint filed by Grassi accusing Gabriel of extortion.
Sancinetti compared the “current trials and condemnations with severe sentences based exclusively on the word of a person who calls itself victim of sexual abuse to the trials for witchcraft of the Middle Ages.”
And in the final volume and on his law firm’s website, Sancinetti said Francis in particular had commissioned the work. He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Supreme Court disagreed with Sancinetti’s analysis, and on March 21, 2017, upheld Grassi’s 2009 conviction for having sexually abused and corrupted Gabriel.
Through tears, Gabriel had testified that on two separate occasions in 1996 the priest had once fondled him, and then performed oral sex on him in his office.
Gabriel, who for a time was placed in Argentina’s witness protection programme after suffering a break-in, physical attacks and threats, said he was shocked when Grassi testified that Bergoglio “had never let go of my hand.”
“We were all like ‘Wow!’ It was Bergoglio,” he said.
Gabriel said he and his lawyer delivered a letter addressed to Francis two months after he was elected Latin America’s first pope, delivering it to the Vatican Embassy in Buenos Aires on May 8, 2013.
In the letter, Gabriel identified himself as a victim of “aberrant crimes of repeated sexual abuse and corruption” by Grassi.
He lamented that court-protected details of his abuse had been exposed by the study, which he said had “denigrated” him personally and contradicted the stated “zero tolerance” policy of both Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ precedessor, and the Argentine pontiff.
“I suffered and continue to suffer,” he wrote. He asked for an audience with the pope “and I earnestly beg you for compassion and help in recovering my faith.”
He never received a reply. In fact, his lawyer said they were threatened at the Embassy and don’t know what became of the letter.
Asked why the Argentine Synod had commissioned the study, a conference spokeswoman said it was to help bishops understand the case better.
“The bishops conference considered that it could provide more information in view of the canonical procedure,” the conference said in a statement provided to AP.
Such a study, however, would be unthinkable for use in a canonical trial. While Church trials do make use of police investigations and evidence from secular courts, a counterstudy commissioned by an entire Synod could run into jurisdictional problems at a canonical trial, canonists said.
In addition, Gabriel’s attorney, Juan Pablo Gallego, said the books ended up on the desks of some local judges deciding Grassi’s appeals and represented what he called a blatant, albeit unsuccessful lobbying attempt.
The diocese of Morón, Buenos Aires Provoince, which was responsible for Grassi, had long defended its decision to keep him in ministry even after the trial began by saying it didn’t want to prejudice the outcome.
Eighteen months after the high court ruled against him, Grassi remains a priest as he serves his 15-year sentence in the Unidad 41 de Campana prison in Buenos Aires Province.
The Morón diocese said Grassi had been removed from pastoral duties when the trial began, and that he now has been restricted from exercising any public ministry. The diocese told AP that the canonical case is now with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that handles sex abuse cases.
Julieta Añazco, president of Argentina’s Survivors’ Network of Ecclesiastical Abuse (Sobreviviente de Abuso Sexual Eclesiástico), said the Grassi case was a watershed for Argentina since the victims went up against a celebrity priest who had the backing of the local Catholic elite, and suffered the public humiliation of being accused of only seeking money.
“They have made the path of our struggle easier for us,” she said. “Thanks to their struggle, many of us were encouraged to denounce [our abusers] publicly.”
She cited the recent case of hearing-impaired victims of the now-notorious Antonio Próvolo Institute who came forward to denounce abuse by Nicola Corrad, an Italian priest who also faced previous accused by Próvolo students in Italy,who in 2014 alerted Francis and the Vatican to his whereabouts. Argentine police have arrested reverend Coradi and raided Próvolo schools.
“Before Pope Francis can enact accountability for bishops and other Church leaders, he has to own up to the harm he himself caused victims in Argentina,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of the online resource Bishop Accountability, which has gathered the documentation on the Grassi saga.
The case has parallels to that in neighbouring Chile, where Francis repeatedly defended a bishop accused of covering up for the country’s most notorious predator,reverend Fernando Karadima. Francis discredited Karadima’s victims, who placed Bishop Juan Barros at the scene of their abuse, saying their accusations were “calumny.”
Francis eventually acknowledged he had made “grave errors in judgment” about Barros, apologised to the victims and launched a Vatican investigation that resulted in all of Chile’s active bishops offering to resign.
Yet he has offered no mea culpa about the Grassi case.
Gabriel, who works odd jobs off the books and has no credit card, is still waiting.
“I’m Catholic, but yes, there are moments when I don’t know if the Church represents me.”
Key findings from the study into allegations against paedophile priest Julio Grassi
Here are some key points from the Church’s counter-inquiry into the legal case against Julio Grassi, a notorious Argentine priest accused of sexual abuse. The four-volume study was commissioned by Argentina’s bishops’ conference, then led by cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the man who would go on to become Pope Francis.
The study concluded that despite being convicted of abusing one boy, the reverend Julio Grassi was innocent, that the complainants were lying and that the case never should have gone to trial.
The Supreme Court upheld Grassi’s guilty verdict and 15-year sentence in March, 2017.
Grassi was found guilty in 2009 of aggravated sexual assault and corruption of minors in a case of “Gabriel.” He was acquitted of abuse in the case of two other accusers.
The lawyer who oversaw the Church study, Marcelo Sancinetti, wrote in the epilogue that “the falsity of each one of the accusations [against Grassi] is objectively verifiable.”
The study said that Gabriel tried to withdraw his accusation in the courts and then tried to extort Grassi by visiting him and offering him “help in exchange for help,” before the accusation was made public on a TV news programme in 2002.
Grassi filed a complaint alleging extortion, but a court threw out the case in 2003 for lack of evidence, long before criminal action against Grassi began.
The study argued that the Catholic Church’s system of canon law doesn’t have to conform to the findings of secular courts.“The spiritual decisions of the Church cannot remain subject to the decisions of the organs of each state, because that would be equivalent to losing its own authority.”
The study says the trials and sentences of Church figures “based exclusively on the word of a person who calls himself a victim of sexual abuse” are comparable “to the trials for witchcraft of the Middle Ages.”
COMMISSIONED BY THE POPE
Sancinetti said Francis was responsible for commissioning the report.
“With this, these Studies on the Grassi Case conclude, and with it the work commissioned in 2010 by the Argentine Episcopal Conference and in particular by its thenpresident cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today His Holiness Pope Francis.”
by BY LUIS ANDRES HENAO AND NICOLE WINFIELD