The stolen children: Abuse scandals, thefts of newborns contribute to increased distrust in Chilean church

Rene Mestre Sabureau, whose adoptive parents got him from a home for unwed mothers run by the Mercedarian nuns in Curico, Chile, 42 years ago. (Melinda Henneberger)
This article appears in the The Stolen Children feature series. View the full series.

Santiago, Chile — Officials in Santiago, Chile, are investigating a series of cases in which newborn babies were purportedly stolen from the poor and given to the rich over many years' time, mostly in the 1970s through the '90s. At least half a dozen Catholic sisters and one of the country's most popular priests have been implicated in these long-hidden crimes. The following is the final article in a three-part series that looks at how this appropriation of children happened and how it stayed secret for so long. Read part one and part two.

At first, René Mestre Sabureau assumed no bad faith on the part of the Mercedarian nuns who brokered his adoption more than 42 years ago.

No, it's the fact that the successors of the nuns who ran a home for women in Curico, just over 100 miles south of Santiago, have slammed the door in his face here and now, he said, that's changed his mind about them.

That, said René, who learned he was adopted on his 18th birthday, is what made him decide to file a complaint both with the papal nuncio and the government. The refusal of the sisters to speak to him further makes him question how much the church as a whole has learned from all the scandals of recent years.

The official church reaction to the adoption scandals here in Chile has actually been mixed, with some leaders stepping up and others double-stepping away.

Santiago Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati told La Segunda, an afternoon daily, that the allegations against Sacred Heart Fr. Gerardo Joannon, accused of arranging illegal adoptions, have raised "a serious, painful issue" and launched an investigation "that I believe necessary." He spoke in solidarity with victims rather than in defense of the accused: "For now, my words are for those who have suffered and are suffering for these outrages."

A spokesman for the bishops' conference is incredibly frank, even considering that the interview he gave NCR was on his last day on the job before he was to be ordained a deacon and begin parish work along with his wife.

There had long been plenty of rumors about Joannon, but none involving babies: "only that he was frequently out in public with a woman who wasn't his relative," said the spokesman, Jaime Coiro.

Now that the truth is out, Coiro counts himself among the outraged over the popular priest's "spiral of lies."

"You lied to the people involved," he says of Joannon, "you lied in this sacred thing, the Mass, and you lied about children!"

When Joannon said in an interview that he didn't intend to cooperate with civil authorities, "that was the worst," Coiro said, shaking his head. "What the church wants is his help to make things clear."

Twenty-nine priests in Chile have been found guilty of sexual abuse since the first case came to light here in 2002. Though most of those cases go back many years, "that's the highest in Latin America," Coiro said, and obviously, "that's nothing to be proud of." In mid-October, a prominent Legionaries of Christ priest was found guilty of molesting a female student in a school founded by the order.

Though between 60 and 70 percent of Chileans still described themselves as Catholic in the last census, the methodology of the whole exercise was so flawed that the government announced it couldn't use any of the numbers at all.

You don't need a study, though, to know that trust is down, Coiro said, adding, "You see the distance between the people and the church authorities; the people need to see in their authorities their own problems and lives."

The church has learned the hard way about sexual abuse, "but there are many things we haven't learned yet," he said, for instance about the inevitable link between secrets and the abuse of power: "Many of these scandals go back to a person who takes power in his own hands, and when you're abusing power, silence is your best friend."

Coiro told a little bit about his own dark night of the soul: After his firstborn son died, he said, "I fought with God, and people close to us had no words. Today, I think my faith is more mature, but I never closed my eyes to doubt and anger."

Speaking plainly about that is as powerful as silence is toxic, and it's not entirely surprising that not one of the accused in these baby-stealing scandals, either inside or outside the church, has acknowledged any wrongdoing, much less apologized.

'The church doesn't react appropriately'

In closing the door on René, the current Santiago provincial of the Mercedarian nuns may be trying to protect her order. But her silence has the opposite effect and is damaging more than her own order's reputation.

It's that sort of reaction -- cutting off contact with René in the hope he'll go away -- that has convinced Marcela Labraña, the head of Sename, the state agency that oversees child welfare, that, even now, "the church doesn't react appropriately, doesn't acknowledge the gravity of the situation when the pain is enormous for the country."

"They've apologized publicly," but the fact that the government had to prevent Joannon's order from sending the priest to Spain shows that "they're still not cooperating," she said. "I was very upset," and she received many calls from those outraged that Joannon might leave the country, Labraña said.

What the nuns from Curico used to tell René, back when they were still speaking to him, he said, is that he's an ingrate. His great-aunt, who died of cancer not long after he was born, was a sister in the order, and it was as a favor to her when she was dying that they gave René's family not one but two children from their home, though children were typically adopted by families who were better-off financially than his was.

For 20 years, he's been trying to convince the nuns to help him find his family, to no avail, though he has learned some things. More than one witness, he said, has told him that his young birth mother sat in a car outside the home in Curico crying on Jan. 2, 1972. To him, that means maybe she did want him then, and may well want to meet him now.

When adoptions brokered by the sisters made the news several months ago, he thought surely they'd have to help him find his parents now. Instead, all the media attention had the opposite effect. "I'm learning how to deal with the church," René said. "They shut the door, shut the door, shut the door, so now I'm trying a different way."

When René recently told the Mercedarian sisters' current superior in Chile, Sr. Elena Ruiz, that he was considering asking the state to investigate his case, he said she told him that her order has power and friends who are lawyers, "and you can't touch me or do anything."

We can't give her account of that conversation because she didn't return multiple calls. A young nun from Ecuador, Sr. Gladys, who answered the door at the convent in her all-white habit, swung open the entryway in the huge metal garage door and said Ruiz was out of town, "visiting the places she has to visit."

Sr. Gladys shuttled several messages to other superiors, but when she returned and reopened the door, she said no, there was no one else who could speak about the matter, and no, no email or other phone number for Ruiz was available. Ruiz would only receive the messages when she returned, said Sr. Gladys, and that might not be for some time.

One of the sisters who ran the Curico home at one time was the former Teresa Melo Leyton -- now Luisa del Carmen Melo Leyton -- who left the convent in 1983 and today works at the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In an interview with CIPER, Chile's Center for Investigative Journalism, Ruiz called Melo "a good nun" who "not for nothing was chosen" to direct the home in Curico.

Mercedarian Sr. Isabela Longoni, who was running the home when René was born, is living in a retirement home in Sardinia, and Ruiz told CIPER that Longoni remembers nothing about the adoptions. René says that when he asked Longoni years earlier, she asked him in return why he wanted to "stir the past" and hurt his biological family by showing up.\

Catholic faith in everyday life continues

How much have the current scandals hurt the church here? Depends whom you ask, of course. Jesuit Fr. Tony Mifsud said he considers Joannon a friend, but one who's done significant harm, with a "case that's struck incredibly."

Jesuit Fr. Marcelo Gidi, who is a lawyer and wears just a small silver cross on his sweater vest, repeated that during the dictatorship, in the worst of times, the church was at its most heroic, but since the early 2000s, the sex abuse scandals have steadily eroded public trust. Those scandals happened everywhere, of course, "but in Chile, the church was very, very important," Gidi said, "so the shock was stronger because the moral standing had been so high."

Now, as a result, "no matter what the accusation against a priest, it's national news," and the Joannon case is magnified in the public debate, though, in Gidi's view, "it was his abuse of power, not the church's."

Still, Pope Francis may be pointing the way out of a long, hard time, by "asking us to trust the people, and that's the only way people will trust us."

Though we tend to think of the church in Latin America as robust compared to the flock in the United States or Europe, practice has fallen off here, too. Those who still practice "are very hurt" by the scandals, said Mifsud, "but they remain Catholic. They've had an experience of God, and that doesn't change, but they suffer a lot."

Certainly, signs of Catholic life are everywhere:

  • The website of one of the leading divorce lawyers in the country has not one, not two, but three photos of the Virgin Mary on her website.
  • On a rainy spring weeknight in the Cathedral downtown, the smell of wisteria was in the air as Chileans in work clothes -- scrubs from the hospital, and other, less identifiable uniforms -- arrived with flowers to lay at the feet of the statue of St. Michael the Archangel, whose September feast day it was.
  • At a dinner party, conversation centered on debating who the most Catholic artists and writers are, with Velázquez trumping even Caravaggio because "only a Catholic could have painted 'Las Meninas.' " And of Graham Greene's novels, which is the most Catholic?
  • Not only is abortion illegal in all circumstances, even following a rape or when the mother's life is at risk, but so is the morning-after pill. Recently, a teenager who had tried to end her own pregnancy was briefly arrested when she went to the emergency room during a miscarriage.

Gustavo Villarrubia, the journalist who broke the story about Joannon, said many people had warned him not to take on the church in his reporting. He moved here from Spain a dozen years ago, and when he started reporting on Joannon, "my friends, good journalists, said, 'Gustavo, are you sure you want to do this?' In fact, I felt a little bit scared, but I didn't attack the church; I attacked some people in the church."

He sees what he calls a double standard in reactions to that part of the story: "People here are still following what priests say. 'I think that was horrible!' they say, yet they're supportive" of the church at the same time.

That may well be another example of "doubleness," in Chile and in the church, but what Gustavo sees as hypocrisy might also be taken as acknowledging serious problems, while also seeing beyond them.

[Melinda Henneberger is a political writer for The Washington Post.]

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