CIUDAD DEL ESTE, Paraguay — A hush falls across the church, broken only by the rhythmic swish of the censer as it bestows acrid incense across the faces of the congregation.
A gaggle of monks in brown habits, their heads tonsured in repentant horseshoes, rises and begins to chant. They are joined by seminarians — priests in training — in floor-length, black soutanes, and Latin liturgy pulses over the pews. The words rise to a massive floor-to-ceiling mural that casts dozens of saintly eyes across the room.
A noise behind the congregation. A door opening. He is here.
Father Carlos Urrutigoity glides into the sanctuary, his ivory and scarlet robes swishing between the pews. Revered by his flock in the unruly diocese of eastern Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, the priest will deliver his sermon to hundreds of worshippers. They will later clamor outside the church to meet the man, to receive his benediction.
This is a man who’s been described by bishops from Switzerland to Pennsylvania as “dangerous,” “abnormal,” and “a serious threat to young people.”
He has spent two decades flitting from diocese to diocese, always one step ahead of church and legal authorities, before landing in this lawless, remote corner of South America. Here, in the pirate-laden jungle near the Iguacu falls, he has risen to a position of power.
Today, despite warnings from the bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where in 2002 Urrutigoity was accused of molesting a teenage boy and sleeping with and touching other young men, this priest leads a starry-eyed cadre of young male seminarians. Despite once being accused of running what a fellow priest called a “homosexual cult” in the hills of Pennsylvania, Urrutigoity now graces the diocese website here, advertising seminars for budding young Catholics.
Urrutigoity’s voyage from his native Argentina to Pennsylvania and back to South America represents a new chapter in the shocking story of abuse in the Catholic Church.
It illustrates the church’s seeming inability to prevent a priest accused of illegal acts in the United States from fleeing to a remote developing country — even one on the doorstep of Pope Francis’ homeland — and remaking himself into a powerful religious leader.
Urrutigoity, who denies ever molesting anyone, says he’s been the victim of a smear campaign. But to those devoted to uncovering church misdeeds, the Argentine’s sustained protection by the Catholic establishment is emblematic of an ethos of cover-ups and gross negligence that continues to place young people at risk.
“Five, 10, 15 years ago, they would move these guys from the southwest corner of the diocese to the northeast corner of the diocese,” said David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests or SNAP. “Nowadays, with victims being more organized and the internet, those kinds of moves are more and more risky, so sending someone abroad is a much safer way to keep them on the job.”
Trouble will find me
Trouble has followed Urrutigoity across the globe.
The first notable account of his alleged transgressions is a 1999 letter from Bernard Fellay, spiritual leader of the traditionalist Catholic society of Saint Pius X, based in Switzerland.
Urrutigoity first served at that organization’s seminary in La Reja, Argentina, where Urrugoity was studying. In a letter to then-Bishop of Scranton William Timlin, Fellay warned about what he described as the Argentine priest’s “homosexual behavior,” stating that Urrugoity was asked to leave La Reja and was given a “second chance” at the society’s seminary in Winona, Minnesota.
While in Minnesota, Urrutigoity was accused of approaching a young seminarian’s bed “for obvious dishonest acts,” the letter states. While the seminarian pretended to be sleeping, according to the letter, Urrutigoity touched him sexually.
“Our conclusion is that there is a dangerous pattern in Fr. Urrutigoity and we feel obliged to reveal this to you,” the letter states.
Despite the clear warning, Urrutigoity was allowed to continue living and working in the Diocese of Scranton. Two years later, he was being accused of sexual misconduct again, this time in court.
Cigars, wine and shared sleeping bags
In Pennsylvania, the accusations against Urrutigoity grew more extreme.
He had teamed up with another charismatic Catholic priest, Eric Ensey. With other like-minded leaders, they founded an ultraconservative religious group called the Society of St. John.
In the late 1990s, the Society of St. John found a home in an unused wing of a Catholic boy’s school, St. Gregory’s Academy. That’s when the trouble really started.
In a 2002 lawsuit against Urrutigoity, Ensey and the Diocese of Scranton, the two priests were accused of a pattern of sexual misconduct.
Urrutigoity was accused of giving alcohol and cigars to teenagers, sharing beds and sleeping bags with seminarians and inappropriately touching at least two young men.
The alleged acts were cloaked in a bizarre dogma upon which Urrutigoity and Ensey had founded their society.
Young men were encouraged to form devoted relationships with their spiritual advisers, court records show. Documents from the lawsuit, brought by a victim identified only as “John Doe,” show the seminarians revered Urrutigoity, who became a father figure, guide and close friend.
But that friendship had a dark side, the documents show.
One former member of the Society of St. John said in a deposition that he slept in the same bed as Urrutigoity after the priest said it would help him overcome his “puritanical attitude.” After a few months of their sharing a bed, the seminarian woke one night to find the priest’s hand first on his abdomen, then on his penis.
The case stirred up further accusations from Urrutigoity’s time in Winona, as well.
In a deposition for the lawsuit, a former seminarian in Minnesota said Urrutigoity asked him to insert anal suppositories in front of him. When he refused, the young man said in a deposition, Urrutigoity was furious, calling the act a betrayal.
Urrutigoity at least twice invited him to sleep in the same bed, the man said in the deposition. One night, he woke up to find Urrutigoity was molesting him, the seminarian said.
His first instinct was to “rip his head off.”
“I thought about it, and I might have been OK to do it, but my dad told me once a guy hit a priest and his arm was frozen forever,” the former seminarian said in the deposition.
The young man instead settled for breaking ties completely with the man he’d once considered a hero. He left the seminary soon afterward.
The Diocese of Scranton settled the lawsuit in 2004 for more than $400,000. It also sent Urrutigoity and Ensey to The Southdown Institute, an organization in Canada, for a detailed psychological evaluation.
Following that evaluation, the Diocese of Scranton’s Independent Review Board made its recommendation, which was noted in the confidential minutes of the board meeting:
“In view of the credible allegation from the seminarian, his admitted practice of sleeping with boys and young men, and the troubling evaluation by the Southdown Institute, Father Carlos Urrutigoity should be removed from active ministry; his faculties should be revoked; he should be asked to live privately.”
Disappearing and reappearing
The 2002 lawsuit caused uproar in Pennsylvania.
A former member of the Society of St. John took to the internet, campaigning virulently against the conservative sect and calling Urrutigoity “Rasputin in a Roman collar.” Bishop Timlin came under increasing pressure as media attention grew.
Timlin told a deposition that he had done all he could to investigate the claims against Urrutigoity, even sending a diocese lawyer to interview the priest. After the lawsuit was filed, Timlin suspended Urrutigoity and Ensey, barring them from practicing or having contact with children.
A criminal investigation launched by the Lackawanna County district attorney was stymied by a lack of cooperation from St. Gregory’s and Pennsylvania’s short statute of limitations on sex crimes, said Tom Dubas, the lead investigator on the case. Dubas wanted to launch a grand jury investigation, but never had the chance.
“As soon as it got out that I was interested in a grand jury, both priests just disappeared,” Dubas said. “We never did convene one.”
Then, in 2008, Urrutigoity began making headlines again, this time in far eastern Paraguay in the den of iniquity known as the Tri-Border Area.
‘A refuge for delinquents’
The Tri-Border Area, at the junction of the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, is a hub for everything from drug smuggling to arms dealing to human trafficking.
The city of Ciudad del Este is the region’s ramshackle capital — a maze of crumbling shopping malls and covered markets, bustling with Brazilians hauling duffel bags full of phony goods across the border.
But for some residents of this chaotic city, things went too far when trouble entered the hallowed grounds of Ciudad del Este’s Catholic churches.
In 2008, Javier Miranda, a Ciudad del Este resident who was once an active volunteer at local churches, learned of a recent influx of international priests. He decided to research the newcomers.
It didn’t take Miranda long to unearth the scandals that had followed Urrutigoity. Immediately, he protested against the priest’s presence in the diocese, and was soon joined by dozens more local volunteers and even a group of 12 local priests, who in 2009 signed a letter denouncing Urrutigoity as a divisive figure.
The bishop of Ciudad del Este, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, responded with a spirited defense of Urrutigoity. The priest had been slandered and persecuted, Livieres said. Miranda and other critics should join with the church in praying for a peaceful end to the controversy, he wrote on the diocese’s website.
“For us, the Diocese of Ciudad del Este has become a refuge of delinquents,” Miranda said.
Undeterred, Livieres continued to support Urrutigoity. Last year, he promoted the Argentine to second in command.
That really upset the folks back in Scranton.
‘A serious threat to young people’
In March, the nonprofit group BishopAccountability.org, which specializes in tracking problem priests, announced on its website that not only was Urrutigoity active in the Catholic church in Paraguay, but he had been promoted to the position of vicar general, essentially the second most powerful post in the diocese of Ciudad del Este.
The new bishop of Scranton rushed to defend his diocese and distance it from Urrutigoity.
In a March 15 statement on the diocese website, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera wrote that the diocese had previously “reported its serious concerns about this cleric to appropriate church officials.”
“In every instance, Bishop Martino clearly expressed his reservations concerning Father Urrutigoity, who was identified as posing a serious threat to young people,” Bambera wrote.
Shortly afterward, Bambera announced he was taking his concerns to the Vatican. A diocese spokesman confirmed the bishop has contacted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a sort of internal affairs for the Catholic Church, about Urrutigoity.
GlobalPost’s email to the Vatican press office requesting comment has not received a response.
Last week, Pope Francis announced he will meet with eight sexual abuse victims, several from Europe, at the Vatican as part of the church’s “zero tolerance” policy. Sexual abuse scandals around the world have dogged the church in the past two decades.
Clohessy, the director of SNAP, said a lack of action on Urrutigoity at this point would be reprehensible.
“The real issue is the continuing refusal — not failure, refusal — of the church hierarchy to take even the most minimal steps to safeguard kids,” Clohessy said.
Outside the church in Ciudad del Este, the normally balmy tropical air has taken on a slight chill. A mist has risen off the nearby river and envelops the faithful as they form a ring around Urrutigoity, waiting to receive his benediction.
Last in line is this GlobalPost reporter. Hearing a question in English, Urrutigoity blinks, then quickly regains his composure. He has an urgent meeting with another priest, he says, but he can answer a couple of questions.
The Argentine priest says he has been the victim of a decades-long smear campaign. Look closely at the people accusing him, he says, and you’ll see the real motives behind the attempts to limit his influence.
“There’s a whole hysteria,” he says. “I think [Bishop Bambera in Scranton] is covering, legally, the bases, so nobody can accuse them and then sue them for millions of dollars.”
In his work, is he in contact with young people? With children? Does he teach? Urrutigoity is asked.
“No, no! Mostly it’s desk work,” the priest insists.
But Urrutigoity’s daily work involves a lot more than sitting in an office.
A January announcement on the diocese’s website named Urrutigoity as one of the key teachers for a course for young people on Catholic culture.
An interview with one of the seminarians at the church where Urrutigoity spoke earlier this month revealed the priest is certainly in the minds and hearts of the more than 40 young men who live in dormitories there.
“Father Urrutigoity is a true superior for us. We view him as a father,” said 20-year-old Mariano Juarez, who spoke in glowing terms about his appointed leader. “In spiritual guidance, which is the most important, in spiritual direction, counseling in difficult times, he helps us with everything.”
Tereza Fretes Alonso contributed reporting from Paraguay.
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