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ARGENTINA | 05-08-2019 12:03

'They're demonic': the deaf victims of Argentina's paedophile priests speak out

Victims testimony shakes trial of Catholic priests in Mendoza accused of sexual abuse.

Ezequiel Villalonga spent most of his life at the Provolo Institute in Mendoza, a Catholic school for deaf children. But now the 18-year-old, who is deaf and mute, has lost all faith in the Church.

He and his classmates claim they are victims of the paedophile priests who ran the institution, part of a sweeping scandal that has shaken Argentina, Pope Francis's home country.

"I think that everything in the Church is fake. Everything they made us read, recite, the way (they said) people should live," he said in sign language, just before the start of the priests' trial on Monday.

"I think they lie and that they're demonic," he added.

Ezequiel only learned sign language as an adult, because despite the Institute's specialized mission, the school situated in the Andean foothills didn't teach him how to speak.

He was only seven months old when his mother realized he was deaf. When Ezequiel was four, she sent him to the Provolo, which was founded in 1995, 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of Buenos Aires.

Until Ezequiel was 16, when the scandal finally broke, he spent his days inside the massive building with a green roof. Once inside its red brick walls, he was only allowed to go home on weekends.

"Life there was terrible. We didn't learn anything, we couldn't speak to each other because we didn't know sign language," he said.

"We would write without knowing what it said, and when we asked other classmates, no one understood anything," he added, speaking at the headquarters for the NGO Xumek (which means "sun" in the indigenous Huarpe language), which provided him with a lawyer.

His testimony, and those of some 20 other victims, are at the center of a trial for the priests Nicola Corradi, 83, and Horacio Corbacho, 59, as well as the school's former gardener Armando Gomez, 49.

"I want them all to go to jail. Corbacho, Corradi and Gomez, so that we can resolve this," said Ezequiel.

Corradi came to Argentina in 1970 from the original Provolo Institute in Verona -- which has also been shaken by a paedophilia scandal in recent years -- to run the Provolo in La Plata.

In 1998, he transferred just 42 miles north to Mendoza, where he worked as the head of the Institute until his arrest in November 2016.

Former altar boy Jorge Bordon, now 50, was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison as part of the sweeping affair, after admitting to abusing five victims himself. Fifteen others also stand accused and will be judged over the course of two other trials. 

'How could they?' 

Paola Gonzalez broke down when recalling the moment she learned that her daughter Milagros, now 16 years old, had been abused while attending the Institute.

Before the scandal, the free school had been considered quite prestigious.

"You should have seen her little body when she went into (the Provolo). She was so small," said Gonzalez, sitting in her house in Mendoza.

"I don't understand, I can't imagine such evil. How could they do so much harm to such a fragile creature?" she demanded.

When the first victim testimonies became public, Gonzalez asked her daughter if she had been abused at the Provolo.

"She was sitting right there," said the cleaning woman, indicating the spot where her daughter "mimed that they had unbuttoned her (clothes) and pulled down her pants."

"Then she looked down again," recalled Gonzalez, who says she has since turned her "pain into fighting."

"It's a huge victory that there's a trial," she added.

"There aren't enough words to empathize with the horror they've lived through and that has hurt them so much," said Monsignor Alberto Bochatey, the auxiliary bishop for La Plata.

"We must ask forgiveness and try to heal as best we can, without hatred."

In July 2017, Pope Francis appointed Bochatey as the Apostolic Commissioner to look into the Company of Mary, the group that runs the Provolo institutes.

"When I was appointed, the first thing I did was try to approach the victims and ask them for forgiveness, and they sent me packing," said Bochatey.

"Until today, I haven't been able to do it," he said, adding he is "very happy that the trial has begun."

– AFP

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