By Inés San Martín
ROSARIO, Argentina – Speaking on background, a Vatican official told Crux in early December that when the crisis of clerical sexual abuse explodes in Pope Francis’s native Argentina, the situation would be dramatic.
Odds are he wasn’t referring to the recently disclosed allegations of abuse against two priests from the Monasterio del Cristo Orante, or the Monastery of the Praying Christ in the province of Mendoza, some 700 miles from Buenos Aires, closer to Chile than to the Argentine capital, but that doesn’t make it any less dramatic.
Of a clear traditionalist tint, with daily Mass in Latin and the monastic tradition of silence firmly upheld, pilgrims and the merely curious are greeted with a sign describing the place not as a “touristic destination, a camping site nor a place for a picnic,” but as a “house of prayer.”
Yet as of Thursday, the monastery is no longer primarily a place of quiet contemplation. Instead, it’s become a closed-off structure resembling a medieval fortress, as the archbishop of Mendoza deemed the accusations to be credible enough to merit further investigation. The prelate, Bishop Marcelo Daniel Colombo, said the measure was “preventive” and “temporary.”
Two priests are currently in prison and awaiting trial, accused of sexually abusing a former student of the community who was a minor at the time and tried to enter the community in 2009. The alleged abuses are said to have continued until 2015, when the young man was 23. The two accused are today over 50.
The man made the allegation against the two founders of the monastery, Diego Roque and Oscar Portillo, who are originally from Buenos Aires. They were formally charged a week ago for “abuse, aggravated by the fact that they are figures of authority, and for abuse with carnal access.”
Both have declared their innocence.
The alleged victim spoke to the archdiocese, which began an internal investigation. According to prosecutors the Church had received earlier allegations of possible wrongdoing by the two priests, but nothing that constituted abuse. The victim reportedly decided to come forth after receiving treatment from a psychologist, and with the hope of “protecting other young men.”
Together with his wife, his doctor and his parents he had been scheduled to testify Jan. 2, but missed that appointment as well as one on Jan. 3.
Alejandro Gullé, procurator of Mendoza’s court, said on Friday, the day the monastery was closed by the bishop, that civil authorities are not “investigating the Church but these two priests. We have received offerings of cooperation from the archdiocese.”
Bishop Colombo decided to close the monastery while “civil justice, canonical justice and state justice” investigate the two monks, with the aim of considering “the way forward with the experience of religious life in this context.”
According to the prelate, an archdiocesan council listened to the “suffering of those who came forward to witness these painful events that gave origin to the canonical cause and also in civil law.”
“We also took into consideration the various elements [which have] contributed to these causes, some of which were not made in the canonical case but publicly referred to by the highest authorities of criminal prosecution,” reads a statement released Jan. 3, the second since the allegations were first made public in late December.
“All this requires us to ensure the welfare of the young religious who have remained in the monastery,” the statement said.
Younger religious brothers, Bishop Colombo explained, will soon return to their family homes and will continue to be accompanied spiritually in their vocational search. The two elder brothers, one professed and another a novice, and thus already a priest, will live in a parochial community.
The administration and management of the monastery will now fall under direct responsibility of the archdiocese while this “painful state of affairs continues.”
“Sharing the pain generated by these events, I beg you to join us with your prayer,” Bishop Colombo wrote. “I know of many who love the Monastery of the Praying Christ and who have lived there moments of deep spiritual intensity. We ask you to understand the unprecedented situation and the essential prudential action expected of the Church in cases like these.”
“Let us pray above all for those who are suffering because of such painful events, so that they can walk the path of truth, and so that we can do it together with them. In this context, as we stated in our communication on December 27, we reiterate our commitment to justice and we place ourselves at your entire disposal.”
A letter from prison
The local newspaper Los Andes published a letter allegedly written by Roque, known by the religious name of Diego of Jesus, from prison. In it, he speaks of a “war” against himself and his fellow monk, but also writes about being imprisoned with seven other men in what he calls a small cell of a “pure religious state.”
He also says that the only temptation is to “believe we’re Van Thuam,” a reference to Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận of Vietnam, who spent 13 years in jail under a Communist regime and today is widely considered a saint.
Many in Mendoza defend the two priests and the monastery, saying they have long been threatened by people who want to buy the 170 acres where the monastery is placed. The land has an estimated value of five million dollars, without taking into account the worth of the building that sits on it.
When the monks acquired the property in 1996, it was considered bad land. However, since then several major wineries have found it fertile territory to produce Malbec, and interest has grown exponentially.
According to some posts found on Facebook, there are people who claim the priests had been told to sell under the threat of losing the land “regardless.”
Others, however, are less inclined to offer defenses for the monks. According to the Network of Clerical Sexual Abuse Survivors of Argentina, the archdiocese has covered up for them and that act is another “link in the chain of cover-up supported by Pope Francis.”