Pope Francis has sent one of his top sex crimes investigators to Bolivia at a time when the Andean nation is being shaken by an escalating pedophilia scandal involving priests.
Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, a leading member of the church’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, arrived in Bolivia on the same day as a former Jesuit seminarian landed in the country vowing to reveal more information about alleged cases of abuse.
The Bolivian Episcopal Conference said Bertomeu’s visit is not directly related to the recent sex abuse allegations but had been planned earlier to analyze “the progress made in the field of the culture of prevention” promoted by the Vatican.
Bertomeu arrived in Bolivia from Paraguay, where he had been investigating similar accusations against church officials and in 2018 he led the investigation into abuses committed by priests against minors in Chile.
The meetings in Bolivia “will be conducted in an atmosphere of profound closeness to all those who have been victims of the scourge of abuse in the Church,” the Episcopal Conference said in a statement.
Bertomeu “is a person of great trust to Pope Francis, who is responsible for addressing these issues, and he is coming to provide some guidance on how we can handle this issue, listen to and support the victims,” said Monsignor Giovani Arana, the Episcopal Conference’s secretary.
The visit comes soon after case of Spanish Jesuit Alfonso Pedrajas became public. According to a private diary accessed by the Spanish newspaper El País, Pedrajas allegedly abused about 85 minors in Catholic boarding schools in Bolivia in the 1970s and 1980s. He died of cancer in 2009.
The Prosecutor’s Office has initiated an investigation, which remains confidential, and has called on victims to file complaints.
The Jesuit Society in Bolivia has apologized to the victims and pledged to support the investigation while denouncing Pedrajas’ superiors for an alleged cover up. Many of the superiors are no longer in office or have died.
Pedro Lima, a former Bolivian Jesuit seminarian considered an important witness, has vowed to cooperate with the investigation. His arrival in Bolivia coincide with Bertomeu’s.
“I am not only a witness but also a victim of abuses of power, sexual abuse, and abuse of conscience by the Jesuit Society in Bolivia,” Lima said upon his arrival in the Bolivian capital of La Paz on Monday to testify before the Prosecutor’s Office.
During a news conference, Lima accused three Jesuits of covering up the alleged abuses.
“Apologies are not enough, these abuses cannot go unpunished. There must be reparation for the victims, and I am here to ensure that these painful events never happen again,” said Lima, who declined to provide details about the alleged abuses he suffered.
Lima’s assertions were questioned by the lawyer for the Jesuits, Audalia Zurita, who said Lima “held a position of power” to denounce the alleged abuses when in 2006 and 2007 he was a member of the Constituent Assembly that reformed Bolivia’s constitution and did not do so.
Lima left the Jesuit Society, where he was a teacher in schools and boarding houses, in 2001 and turned to politics. In 2012, he left the country claiming “political persecution” by the Movement Toward Socialism party, and sought refuge with the Jesuits in Paraguay, where he worked until recently.
“Of course, I worked with the Jesuits in Paraguay. Having worked with them does not mean that I should remain silent… when I wanted to denounce, they said there were no victims, no evidence,” he said.
Pedrajas’ case has brought other previously unresolved cases to light. Prosecutor Wilfredo Chávez stated that “there are 23 priests implicated in pedophilia in the country,” including one who was sent to pre-trial detention for three months last week.
There have been isolated protests in some churches and Catholic schools in Bolivia since the Pedrajas case came to light.