The stolen children: Chile parents allege theft of newborns

A chalk drawing of the Virgin and Child in downtown Santiago, Chile, where Catholic symbols are everywhere (Melinda Henneberger)
This article appears in the The Stolen Children feature series. View the full series.

Olivar, 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.

These weren't political kidnappings, few of which happened in Chile during the bloody, 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, in large measure thanks to the opposition of the Catholic church. Yet at least half a dozen Catholic sisters have been implicated in these long-hidden crimes.

The following article is the first in a three-part series that looks at how this appropriation of children happened, and how it stayed secret for so long.

Maria "Rosa" Rojas and her husband, Hernán Enrique Cavieres Díaz, met as kids in this apple-, cherry- and grape-growing region south of Santiago. "We were neighbors, gracias a Dios," said Hernán, and Rosa pulled out an old snapshot of them wearing blazers and dazed expressions on their wedding day, Oct. 14, 1983, when she was 16 and he was 19.

They've been blessed in the three decades since, 51-year-old Hernán said in an interview in their tin-roofed home near the fields where he's a farm hand and she's a seasonal worker, picking fruit as it comes in.

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"God gave me a beautiful wife, and God gave me this beautiful house," he said, ticking off his reasons for gratitude as he placed a plate of cookies and saltines on the table and Rosa made Nescafé.

The only thing more that he and Rosa could possibly ever want, and pray for every day, is to meet the newborn twin sons they believe were stolen from them -- with the complicity of a nun, no less -- in the Santiago maternity hospital where the boys were born on July 27, 1984.

If Rosa, who is 46 now, ever does see them again, "I just want to tell them what happened," she said, beginning to cry as she unspooled her experience at the old maternity hospital at Barros Luco, named for a Chilean president from the early 1900s.

After the first such reports made the news in April, the government agency that deals with adoptions and child welfare was flooded with calls from women who said they'd either had the same devastating experience, or had heard a fellow patient at Barros Luco screaming in the night that her baby had been stolen, or wonder now if Mom's crazy story about having her baby stolen by a nun who told her to pray and be quiet wasn't so crazy after all.

"There are many more cases," said Cristián Letelier, Rosa and Hernán's lawyer. But they are especially hard to prove since the place, which closed more than a decade ago, "doesn't exist anymore." For years, it was as if the children who disappeared from there had never existed, either.

Some of these "permanent kidnappings," as the government is calling them, allegedly occurred both before Pinochet took power in a coup d'état on Sept. 11, 1973, and after he finally surrendered control in 1990.

That era was, however, the undisputed high point of the Chilean people's trust in the church -- trust that, here as elsewhere, has been eroded in recent years by sex abuse scandals involving priests. Now that disappointment has been exacerbated by the news that several Catholic nuns have been implicated in these long-hidden crimes against children and families.

In three such cases, three nuns stand accused of working with a network of doctors, nurses and administrators who stole babies from mothers who delivered in the now-shuttered Santiago public maternity hospital of Barros Luco.

According to the victims, the sisters told them that their children were dying or had died. Parents were not shown a body or given a death certificate, and mothers who returned later to insist on claiming a body were informed there was no record of their having been a patient. One woman said she was threatened with commitment to a mental hospital if she ever came back.

In the "pain of these parents asking for the bodies of their babies, there was a kind of madness," said Letelier, who is representing the alleged victims in a dozen of the Barros Luco cases. "They'd say, 'Come back tomorrow,' and then get there and be told, 'Sorry, but we burned the body.' "

Letelier said three other cases involve three nuns who ran the Good Shepherd home for girls in Iquique, in northern Chile, into the mid-1990s.

Also under investigation by a special prosecutor with police and subpoena power at his disposal is the work of a group of Mercedarian sisters*, who ran a home in Curico, Chile. The home has been described as something like the Magdalene laundries in Ireland and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where destitute women with few options were effectively forced to surrender their children. The home in Curico closed in 2011.

One of its former directors, Luisa del Carmen Melo Leyton, reportedly left both the convent and the country in 1983 after questions were raised about her work there. She now works at the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Another former director of the house, Sr. Isabela Longoni, lives in a retirement home in Sardinia and has said she doesn't remember the arrangements. The current provincial has also said she knew nothing about any of the allegations.

Yet another group of women, who called themselves Benedictine nuns but were not sisters at all, ran a third such home, and allegedly sent 99 children to be adopted in Holland and Germany over many years' time.

Then there's the priest at the center of the two cases that finally brought all of these other horror stories to light last April, when journalist Gustavo Villarrubia wrote about them for the Chilean news site CIPER, the Center for Investigative Journalism.

One of the best-known priests in the country, Sacred Heart Fr. Gerardo Joannon, credited with forming the social conscience of a generation, was suspended from his parish work after his order found him to have helped arrange two illegal adoptions -- and let two unmarried young mothers from well-off families incorrectly believe that their children had died.

He has denied all wrongdoing but said he acted to prevent abortions -- a motivation that the report issued by the Congregation of the Sacred Heart did not find credible. Joannon originally told Villarrubia that he knew of 10 doctors and half a dozen other priests who "did the same thing."

As the number of reports continues to grow, these allegations still lack the tidiness of a single villain or even a single, clear motivation. But the one through-line is that they are all stories about how class differences have played out here -- and, according to the accounts of some of the major players, sometimes still do.

The rationalization seems to have been that the children given away for adoption were better off. With some of the accused dead and others elderly, finding the truth now is difficult, and expected to take years.

"We still get new allegations every day, and are taking it very, very seriously," said Marcela Labraña, director of Sename, the government agency that oversees adoptions and child welfare. Labraña read her talking points to me in her office, which has a stunning view of the Cerro Santa Lucía, a hill named for St. Lucy, the patron saint of sight, because it offers such a beautiful vista.

Labraña kept repeating how quickly the government of President Michelle Bachelet, her boss, moved to investigate once the issue became national news. After decades, that is, of loud whispers among the elite and wailing from the powerless that was ignored by church and state alike.

It was around Christmastime in 1983, Rosa said, that she realized "we were having a family." Not long after that, a sonogram showed she was carrying twin boys. The pregnancy was problem-free, according to the records she's kept, except that she was tired all the time, and her feet ached.

Long before her children were born, "I was always talking to them," she said, smiling at that part of the memory. And Hernán was so in sync with her, they both said, that he recalled having morning sickness throughout her first trimester.

When she went into labor four weeks early, her grandfather went with her to the clinic in nearby Rancagua, where they sent her to Barros Luco, about an hour away.

Each boy weighed only about 2 pounds -- tiny. Still, Rosa heard doctors in the delivery room pronounce them "in perfect condition" with "good lungs."

"I touched their hands, and their hair, and they were in a perfect state," their mother said. Then she was sent to bed, where she called for them for hours before a nun finally came looking for her around midnight.

Both of her children had died, Rosa said the nun told her quite brusquely, adding only that she mustn't "make a drama or a scandal" over it.

The next morning, when Hernán arrived at Barros Luco, several doctors and the same sister told him that he couldn't see the bodies and would not be allowed to bury them. "Why would you want them?" he remembered being asked. "I'm their father; of course I want them!"

All he was given instead, he said, was a blank piece of paper he was asked to sign and did. "But what did I sign?"

No record of either their birth or death exists in the official civil registry.

When Rosa and Hernán returned to the hospital, again asking for their children, they were again taken to the room where Hernán had been told his children had died. "I had my papers" from the hospital, Rosa said, "and I heard a doctor outside telling someone else, 'You're inept! Why does she have those?' "

The final time she went back, a month later, with her mother, and asked to speak to the director, she was told that if she ever showed up there again, they'd have her declared insane and committed. "We have the power, and you can't do anything," she said an administrator told her.

After all they'd already been through, that didn't seem unthinkable, so Rosa and Hernán suffered in private from then on, observing their sons' birthday every year, and spending all the other days, too, "with the greatest part of my life missing," Rosa said. "We cried alone, and we lived alone."

If her children did die, of course, they were only robbed of the respect and clarity that having an explanation and body to bury would have provided.

But on the hospital document Rosa has saved all these years, someone seems to have first checked the box for "live birth" and then crossed that out and marked "born dead." There were so many times, Hernán said, when he wanted to burn those papers, because they made his wife cry.

Only why, if the children really had died just hours after being born, did a notation on the hospital record also say that she'd suffered a double miscarriage?

Just two months ago, they said, they learned the name of the nun who had come to Rosa in the night -- Salesian Sr. María Graciela Soto. Even at 93, she was easy to recognize, Rosa said, with "a face I can never forget." The elderly sister told a reporter for Chile's Channel 13 that she remembers helping just one couple adopt a child, and she would do it again, too, because it was the right thing to do. She said she doesn't remember Rosa, though, and her fellow sisters have told reporters that she has memory problems that vary from day to day.

Though Rosa had trouble conceiving again, she and Hernán did have another child, a daughter who is 21 now and has a baby of her own. Before she gave birth, Rosa counseled her daughter again and again on what not to do in the hospital: "Don't close your eyes."

After CIPER published stories by Villarrubia about other "stolen children" last April, Rosa and Hernán contacted a member of the local town council, and suddenly found officialdom shockingly receptive. In fact, a local senator helped them find their lawyer. "A senator!" she repeated.

They've also taken DNA tests, and hope that maybe their children have done or will do the same.

One further worry, tiny by comparison, is that if their sons were raised by a well-off family, they might not want to know them. "We're campesinos; I work a lot and have a small salary," Hernán said.

"I hope they don't reject us, but the people who are helping us tell us we have to be prepared" for that possibility, Rosa said. "But they have to listen to what happened!"

"They were created by love," Hernán added softly.

"We are poor but transparent," Rosa said. "We are as we are."

Though Hernán still wears the same cross he wore in the photo on his wedding day, he and Rosa no longer consider themselves Catholic. After what happened at Barros Luco, "I don't want to go to the church, hear a priest or see a nun," she said. "I only have faith in God."

Even after hearing this story told again and then once again, as it played out in the lives of two other families, it's hard to understand why a missing baby wouldn't have gotten the attention of at least one of the various cops, doctors, administrators, judges and journalists who dismissed such reports over the years.

But "to complain, you need money," said Marcela Quincha Benavides, who lives in Paine, midway between the capital and Olivar, where Rosa and Hernán live.

Marcela and her ex, Carlos Zurita Llancaleo, believe that their newborn daughter, Bernardita, who, if she's alive, turned 27 on Sept. 18, was taken from Barros Luco, too. They'd fed her in the nursery for three days and saw nothing physically wrong, until a nun surprised them by asking Carlos if the child could receive last rites.

After then being informed that she had died, they were told to come back the next morning to claim the body. When they did so, though, the man who ran the hospital morgue said it wasn't there anymore. "I didn't have enough money to buy a coffin," said Carlos, who's a carpenter and handyman, "so I'd built one." Marcela, who was only 16 at the time, had brought a burial gown and small pillow that her mother had made.

When they were turned away -- told that her body had either been used for science, or buried in a mass grave, maybe -- Carlos walked the streets for hours, not even knowing where he was, his worried mother-in-law trailing behind him in the only funeral procession Bernardita ever had. And the coffin? "I left it there," he said, "for someone who needed it."

At least now, 63-year-old Gloria Cortés Peñailillo's family believes her memory of the nun who came to her in the middle of the night at Barros Luco 39 years ago and told her to pray because her son was dying -- when Gloria, too, said she knew he was not.

Two weeks later, she went to family court and tried to sue the hospital for negligence and to force them to produce his body. "But I didn't have anything to show, and there was no record I'd ever been at the hospital."

Asked if he'd always felt that way, too, her husband, Luis Cortés Pinochet, a distant relative of the former dictator, shook his head. "Today I do, but at that time I thought he'd died; we never imagined these things could happen."

By the time his wife came home from the hospital, he'd taken down the crib and all the other baby things, and put them away, along with any suspicions about elements of the story that didn't add up.

Even the one thing that gave Gloria some hope to hold onto back then showed the strength of class and racial divides: A neighbor who worked at the hospital and had seen her baby the night he was born told her sister at the time that he was "hermoso y blanco" -- beautiful and white, in other words, with no indigenous blood. Gloria cares about the story because it supports her belief that the child wasn't in any distress.

But she also wonders whether his "beautiful and white" appearance, coupled with the fact that she had arrived at the hospital unaccompanied, made him a more tempting target. "It's terrible to go through this whole life not knowing."

We have to understand, said their 37-year-old son, Pedro Pablo Cortés, that this was only three years after the coup, the hospital was full of military people, and when administrators there said to go home and not ask too many questions, well, that's what you did.

That lack of ability to question and discuss any number of things explains how such a thing could happen then, but the most recent such report is from 2005. And how did all of this stay hidden ever since?

Every one of the dozens of Chileans interviewed for these stories mentioned the culture of secrecy or silence in which they occurred. Santiago historian Celia Cussen connected the country's conquest and 300 years of conflict to what she called Chile's high tolerance for "doubleness" -- of second, hidden families, and other second, hidden realities of all kinds.

"That's very Chilean," agreed Fr. Tony Mifsud, a Jesuit author here. And very Catholic: "Protestants say either, or," while "we Catholics say and, and, and."

Even here, though, secrets don't hold forever, and the institutions that held them in check are finally crumbling. After the sex abuse scandals of recent years, reporters are, if anything, more willing to believe the worst of church leaders. And if we have learned only one lesson from the scandals, it's surely that the only real protection is the transparency that Rosa rightly sees as her strength: "We are poor, but transparent," she said, in what could be a prayer for the church.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the religious order.

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

This story appeared in the Nov 7-20, 2014 print issue under the headline: The stolen children: Long secrecy ends as Chile parents allege theft of newborns .

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