The stolen children: Popular Chilean priest brought low by affiliation to theft of newborns

Fr. Gerardo Joannon celebrates Mass at Parroquia la Anunciación in Santiago, Chile. (Gustavo Villarrubia)
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 article is the second 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.

Today, 77-year-old Fr. Gerardo Joannon lives in semi-seclusion, suspended from his parish work and expected to refrain from speaking publicly while the state investigates possible charges against him under human rights law that has no statute of limitations.

His order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, has already concluded, according to a statement issued by its provincial, that in 1975 and 1983, he helped arrange illegal adoptions for teenage girls from prominent families. He led the girls, his provincial said, to believe that their newborn children had died.

The probe also found that Joannon had said a funeral Mass for one of those children, and a Mass in her memory every year for 25 years. The order also said he had had an "inappropriate relationship" with that child's mother.

Finally, it concluded that his stated motivation -- to "prevent abortions" -- doesn't hold up. Initially, his superiors wanted to ship him off to Spain for two years of prayer and reflection, but civil authorities thought that sounded a little too much like a vacation, or an escape route, and barred him from leaving the country for now.

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Though Joannon has denied all wrongdoing, his provincial, Alex Vigueras Cherres, apologized not only to the families involved, but to the faithful, "because we didn't act when we had the first evidence, because we doubted the truth of the evidence and because our mistake profoundly deepened and prolonged their pain."

That mea culpa hasn't been widely accepted by civil authorities or the public, though.

To appreciate what Joannon's downfall means in Chile, you have to know who he used to be: a man who formed the social conscience of a generation. To Chileans who came of age during the brutal 1973-90 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, he was so universally respected that even the editor of the investigative journalist who broke the story, Gustavo Villarrubia, of the Center for Investigative Journalism, had to recuse himself from overseeing the project, telling Villarrubia that Joannon had made him who he is today.

Dr. José Luis Contreras, who has spent his career treating the poor in public clinics, said he had to give Joannon credit in that same way: "I saw him as a person who embodied the Gospel and someone from high society who cared about poor people."

Joannon was seen as the rare priest who bridged that divide in a culture where nobody pretends class differences aren't significant: "I would have lunch with my maid, but my mother wouldn't," one woman I interviewed volunteered, by way of explaining gaps that may have narrowed, but not disappeared. The same woman, who was adopted illegally and is looking for her biological parents, said her adoptive mother told her that the reason she didn't want to adopt legally, through a foundation, is that she didn't want to risk getting a "brown baby" of indigenous descent.

Joannon's disgrace is most important in that the story about him surfaced a number of reports from low-income Chileans who believe their babies were stolen from them after they delivered in public hospitals.

The scandal is yet another black eye to the church here, not so long after the clerical sex abuse scandals that have come to light all over the world.

'Our baby died for us, but was born for another family'

Even differing accounts from major players in Joannon's story say a lot about culture, class and the church's dwindling credibility in a country where, until recently, priests were seen as heroes.

The biological father of one of the children whose adoption Joannon allegedly helped arrange told his version of events over lunch at his Santiago country club, where there were no other women in the dining room.

Most were in business attire, but not "Francisco," as he's known in the local press because he doesn't want his real name made public. He was dressed down in a Lacoste sweater, having taken early retirement to enjoy life. He wasn't always so relaxed, though.

Three decades ago, when he was 24, his 23-year-old girlfriend broke up with him, he said, not long after telling him that her former lover, Joannon, with whom she'd been involved for years, had come to her crying and let her know how upset he was that she was seeing someone else. On her way out the door, Francisco asked -- "on an intuition" -- that she get a pregnancy test, and they soon learned that she was seven weeks pregnant.

A recent college graduate and son of a well-known actor, he had no job yet but very much wanted to marry her, though that's not what she wanted. He said he talked to her father, a prominent politician, "and said I wanted to be the father" of the child anyway. "And he said, 'Yes, you will be.' " Which, of course, is not what happened.

On Feb. 1, 1983, Francisco received a call from the girl's father, who said that his daughter had given birth, but that the baby girl had been stillborn. "And I believed it," Francisco said. "He's the father of 10, a minister of the state, very Catholic and very powerful," so why would he lie?

When a friend suggested that he might want to make sure that was the case, he went to the hospital and was told that the child had not died, but had only been transferred to another hospital.

The girl's family insisted otherwise, but the night before he left for Italy for a year, the child's mother came to him and said, " 'Our baby died for us, but was born for another family, and I gave her as a gift.' She was crying and I was crying," Francisco said. But he still didn't know where to find the child.

Over the next 20 years, he said, he kept trying to locate his daughter, at one point through a private investigator who charged him a lot of money and said he'd found her, but actually had not.

At that point, "I threw down the phone and said I would wait for her until the last breath of my life, and if there's reincarnation until the last breath of my next one. But I told God, 'It's your problem now; I'm putting my hands down.' "

Not a month later, his mother called him to say that his daughter had found her and wanted to meet him, too. DNA tests proved his paternity, and the photos on his phone of them with his wife and other children, who had always known about her, together show a happy ending for them. His daughter's biological mother still doesn't want to know her, he said.

To him, the motivation of all those involved in his own story and others boils down to the abuse of power, mostly wielded against those without any: Ninety-five percent of the children who were taken from their parents "were stolen from poor families," he said. "Doctors in Chile think they're God, and the people had no rights, so they acted with impunity."

A couple of days a week, he and others in his family volunteer for a new private foundation, Nos Buscamos, founded by Constanza del Río, who herself is looking for her biological parents, and del Río's husband, Arturo Fellay. They hope to set up a private DNA bank to help reunite families, and an estimated 3,000 people have signed up so far.

While it's impossible to say how many of those have a legitimate claim, "I never imagined the number of cases" that are being looked into, Francisco said. Nobody did.

Not an accomplice, but a victim

Juan Esteban Aballay is the current partner of the woman Francisco had a baby with all those years ago, and he's frustrated to no end that no one wants to hear her side of the story, though she's too upset to grant interviews.

He vehemently denies that she ever had a romantic relationship with Joannon, who, before all this trouble, frequently went out socially with Aballay and his partner. In his view, Joannon's order only blamed him for that and more because there are generational and class divides within the congregation, and scores to settle.

In his view, the far greater problem of children stolen from the poor and given to the rich -- cases Joannon had nothing to do with -- are being ignored because the story of a priest involved in anything criminal has become as irresistible as it used to be unthinkable.

"In this new Chile with new values, where not everybody gets married, all the focus is on Joannon and not on the real problem -- a huge, national problem -- of the children stolen from the poor families: Where are they?" Aballay said.

"The justice system is still just looking at a few of the cases -- and Chile still has this concern about 'What are you going to say about me?' A certain percentage of the upper class still doesn't smoke or drink in public, or have tattoos -- but they do things like give babies away."

The two "elite" women, including his partner, who were told their children had died all those years ago were victims of the class divide, too, he said, because their families and doctors thought they were protecting them from the shame of raising children on their own, which is what both of the young women were determined to do.

"This had to do with class -- 'Oh, what are you going to say?' -- so Joannon talked about that" with reporters, until his order asked him to stop. "He was speaking openly -- very openly," Aballay said, laughing darkly about a time when these situations were handled behind closed doors. That's "because it was easier for biological parents to say, 'My baby died' and for adoptive ones to say, 'This is my baby, born to me.' "

The day 31 years ago that his partner went into labor, she was taken to the best hospital in Santiago, then and now -- Clínica Santa María, best known as the hospital where the poet Pablo Neruda died in 1973, just weeks after the coup d'état.

"They gave her anesthesia" during labor, "which isn't usual, and when she woke up asking, 'Where is my baby?' " her obstetrician, Gustavo Monckeberg, a "high-fashion" doctor, told her the child had died. Monckeberg's grandson, who is a current member of the Chilean legislature, has defended his memory, and other relatives have also said he did nothing but facilitate adoptions to help infertile couples and prevent abortions.

Aballay maintains that his partner never at any point told the child's father that their child was alive because she didn't know it herself until the girl showed up a decade ago. He acknowledged, though, that mother and daughter don't yet have a real relationship.

"They met only once, but 'Hi, I'm your mom' is hard." The daughter's life "was made in another family; she died to the one family, but was born to another." To Aballay, it's clear that his partner "was a victim of this system, not an accomplice."

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

This story appeared in the Nov 21-Dec 4, 2014 print issue under the headline: Priest implicated in thefts of newborns .

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