Church Sex Abuse: ‘I was forced to swim naked with our Priest’

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Chile is one of the countries embroiled in a worldwide scandal about child sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic Church.

The country’s top cardinal, Ricardo Ezzati, has been summoned to a hearing for questioning over allegations he covered up the abuse, which he denies.

In total, more than 150 members of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile are under investigation for allegedly committing or covering up sexual abuse from 1960 onwards.

BBC Mundo’s Constanza Hola spoke to two of the more than 250 victims of clerical sex abuse and also to Gonzalo Duarte, one of the five Chilean bishops whose resignation Pope Francis accepted in the wake of the scandal. Our reporter spoke to Bishop Duarte before he resigned.

‘If you rejected them, they got angry’
Mauricio Pulgar was member of a Catholic youth group and was thinking about becoming a priest when he was invited to a Church-run retreat in a small town in central Chile in 1993.

He was 17 at the time. The retreat was led by two priests, and when one of them had to leave, the remaining one was left in charge.

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Mr Pulgar says that on that first night they were left alone with him, the priest told the boys in the group to go swimming naked in the pool.

“I and another friend said ‘no’ but he forced us. He told us that if we didn’t do it, it was because we had sexual problems,” Mr Pulgar told BBC Mundo.

“He came into the pool and touched us. He said it was good for building trust and self-esteem.”

Two months later, Mr Pulgar started studying to become a priest. He says that he also suffered abuse at the seminary.

“They hugged you from behind (…). If you rejected them, they got angry. You were bullied if you didn’t allow them to kiss you,” he says about his experiences at the seminary.

He remembers a traumatic episode with one particular priest, whom he was helping out in a nearby town.

“He asked me why I didn’t want to be ‘initiated’. I didn’t understand what he meant. He said heterosexuality didn’t exist, that we were all gay and had to try everything.

The BBC approached both priests but neither responded to our requests for comment.

The BBC also put Mr Pulgar’s allegations to Gonzalo Duarte, who from 1998 until his resignation in June 2018 was bishop of the diocese of Valparaíso.

Valparaíso is the diocese where Mr Pulgar was a seminary student and the alleged abuse took place. However, the incidents took place before Bishop Duarte was put in charge of the diocese.

Bishop Duarte said that he had heard that the priest who had spoken about “initiating” Mr Pulgar had had “serious homosexuality problems” in his new diocese.

But Bishop Duarte told the BBC that as those reports came from another diocese, they did not fall under his supervision.

Mr Pulgar says that the same priest had once asked him to stay overnight in his parish. “He gave me some refreshments and I started feeling sick. He told me: ‘Lie down on my bed, get some rest.’”

“I fainted and woke up to the sound of panting. He was abusing me. I tried to move my arms and legs, but I couldn’t. I finally was able to move one hand but he grabbed it and…,” Mr Pulgar’s voice breaks.

“He then opened a drawer full of money and told me I was now part of his circle. I told him I didn’t want to belong to any circle and left.”

Mr Pulgar eventually left the seminary, but it took him 20 years to open up about what he had gone through. In 2013, he lodged a formal complaint with the Church authorities as well as in a civil court.

Bishop Duarte said that a canonical investigation was carried out, but he told the BBC that there had been “no crime”.

The priest in question is now living in a residence where church retreats are held.

‘He became obsessed with me’

Sebastián del Río knew he wanted to be a priest from the age of 12 and joined the seminary in 1999, after graduating from high school.

The seminary’s dean was the same priest who Mr Pulgar said had forced him and his friends to get into the pool with him naked six years earlier.

Mr del Río says the dean became obsessed with him. “He used to come to my room for small talk. I started leaving the door open when he came in, I was afraid.”

At some point he reported him to the bishop responsible for the seminary, who told him that the dean had “emotional issues”.

“I asked what he meant and he told me that the dean had fallen in love with me.”

The bishop encouraged Mr del Río to confront the dean. “I thought he was going to deny everything, but instead he started crying. He told me he had never meant to hurt me.”

The dean was eventually transferred. He continues to work in a parish to this day.

Mr del Río says that after he had finished his studies, Bishop Duarte summoned him to his flat to discuss his ordination.

“We were chatting and he suddenly got half naked and asked me to apply anti-inflammatory ointment on his back. It was so humiliating,” Mr del Río recalls.

Asked about the incident, Bishop Duarte denied any wrongdoing and labelled Mr del Río’s account “a dirty trick”.

Bishop Duarte says that he received Mr del Río on the request of the assistant bishop, who had told him that the young man was crying.

Bishop Duarte says that after a long day at the cathedral his back ached. “I told him [Mr del Río]: ‘Apply that ointment here while I listen to you’, that was all.”

Mr del Río says that following that incident, Bishop Duarte refused to ordain him arguing he was “a gossip and a busybody”.

In 2010, Mr del Río filed a formal complaint against the dean and Bishop Duarte but he says he never received an answer.

When the BBC showed Bishop Duarte the complaint, he said he had never received it.

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