Today, Grassi is a convicted sex
offender who remains free on a conditional release after being
sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009 for molesting a prepubescent
boy in his care.
Yet in the years after Grassi's
conviction, Bergoglio - now Pope Francis - has
declined to meet with the victim of the priest's crimes or the victims
of other predations by clergy under his leadership. He did not
offer personal apologies or financial restitution, even in cases in
which the crimes were denounced by other members of the church and the
offending priests were sent to jail.
Since he was elected to the papacy Wednesday,
media attention has focused primarily on Bergoglio's actions during the "Dirty War
of Argentina's military dictatorship. But at a time when the
Vatican is facing a costly legal and moral crisis on several
continents over sex crimes committed by its priests, Bergoglio's
handling of pedophilic clergy under his authority offers insight into
how he might approach the scandals.
There is no evidence that
Bergoglio played a role in covering up abuse cases. Several prominent
rights groups in Argentina say the archbishop went out of his way in
recent years to stand with secular organizations against crimes such as
sex trafficking and child prostitution. They say that Bergoglio's
resolve strengthened as new cases of molestation emerged in the
archdiocese and that he eventually instructed bishops to immediately
report all abuse allegations to police.
In September, after an Argentine priest
from a rural area was convicted of abusing dozens of boys between 1984
and 1992, the archbishop's office released a statement saying the case
had "reaffirmed our profound shame and the immense pain that result
from the grave mistakes committed by someone who should be setting the
But during most of the 14 years
that Bergoglio served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, rights advocates
say, he did not take decisive action to protect children or act swiftly
when molestation charges surfaced; nor did he extend apologies to the
victims of abusive priests after their misconduct came to light.
"He has been totally silent, said
Ernesto Moreau, a member of Argentina's U.N.-affiliated Permanent
Assembly for Human Rights and a lawyer who has represented victims in a
clergy sexual-abuse case. Victims asked to meet with Bergoglio but were
turned down, Moreau said. "In that regard, Bergoglio was no different
from most of the other bishops in Argentina, or the Vatican itself.
The Catholic Church has paid out at least $2 billion in the United
States alone to settle abuse claims, according to monitoring groups. In
many Latin American countries, though, the scope of crimes has only
begun to surface, and in Argentina, no victims have received
restitution in public settlements, rights groups and lawyers said.
case of Father Grassi has been particularly troublesome to children's
advocates here because Bergoglio was widely viewed as close to the
young priest, who told reporters before his conviction that he spoke
with Bergoglio often and that the archbishop "never let go of my hand.
Grassi was not expelled from the
priesthood after the guilty verdict. Instead, church officials led by
Bergoglio commissioned a lengthy private report arguing that Grassi was
The report was submitted as part
of the priest's legal appeal, which is pending, and prosecutors say the
document has helped Grassi avoid jail time so far. A court
has granted him a provisional release
that allows him to continue residing across the street from the
classroom and dormitories of Happy Children.
The sprawling, gated complex in a
working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires once had
more than 600 students and resident orphans. It became the economic and
religious hub of the community as Grassi channeled private donations
into its schools, vocational workshops, bakeries and playgrounds.
Today its classrooms are mostly
shuttered. The foundation's grounds are choked with weeds and uncut
grass, its swings are rusting, and its statuary is dimmed by creeping
"He gave with one hand, but he took away
with the other, said neighbor Sabina Vilagra, whose husband worked as
a janitor at the foundation and was called to testify in the trial.
"He had his favorites - always boys,
said her daughter, Florencia Vilagra, who also worked at Happy Children
at the time.
"He would give them bicycles or toys and
would designate one as his special "secretary, she said.
There were three accusers in the trial -
given the names "Ezequiel, "Gabriel and "Luis to protect their
identities - who ranged from ages 9 to 13 at the time of the abuse,
according to prosecutor Juan Pablo Gallego.
One of Argentina's best-known advocates
for child-abuse victims, Sister Martha Pelloni, said she was called in
several times to consult with psychologists who treated Grassi's
alleged victims. She said the meetings left her with no doubt that the
priest was guilty, despite the church-commissioned report attempting to
exonerate him. He was eventually convicted on the charges made by one
of the boys. "A lot of Catholics have wanted to protect and defend
him, she said. "But the abuses were real.
Still, Pelloni praised Bergoglio
for evolving over the years and taking an increasingly firm stance
against predatory clergy. Argentine law makes it a crime to fail to
report allegations of abuse against children. "Now if you go to a
bishop with a claim, they'll say, "˜Report to the police, she said.
"Bergoglio must have ordered that.
Yet past victims of sexual abuse
might have been spared if their cases, too, had received such decisive
action, Bergoglio's critics contend.
In one of Argentina's most egregious
abuse cases, another priest in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires
was assigned to work with children even when church leaders knew of
allegations against him.
After local parishioners accused
Father Mario Napoleon Sasso of molesting children in a poor, rural
province of eastern Argentina in the early 1990s, he was sent to a private
rehabilitation center for wayward clergy, La Domus Mariae (the
House of Mary), north of Buenos Aires. He lived for two years at the
center and was then reassigned to work in a soup kitchen for poor
children in a town outside the capital. There, he went on to sexually
abuse girls as young as 3.
"His bedroom was adjacent to the
cafeteria, and it had the only bathroom in the chapel, said Moreau,
the attorney for the victims' families.
Moreau said that in 2003 he
accompanied two nuns and a priest who had denounced Sasso, along with
the victims' families, to a meeting with the Vatican emissary in Buenos
Aires. He said the families were told to be "patient and were offered
gifts of rosaries "blessed by the pope.
"They just wanted to cover it
up, Moreau said.
Three years later, as the
evidence against Sasso mounted, the families asked to see Bergoglio,
Moreau said, but they never received a response. Sasso was convicted in
2007 and sentenced to 17 years in prison. He has since been released on
Religious-affairs scholar Fortunato
Mallimaci, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires, said that
as Pope Francis, Bergoglio will face an entirely
different set of expectations for how to handle abuse claims. "In
the United States and Europe, there is a clear separation of church and
state, he said. "Not in Latin America. There, he said, civil
is often too weak to take on the power of the clergy, and suspicion
falls first "on the accuser, not the accused.
But, Mallimaci added, "as a bishop from
Latin America, he is going to be very sensitive to what is going on in
society around him and the politics of the era. If he wants to
reestablish the church's credibility, he'll be the first to say that no
abuse will be tolerated, whether in Washington or Rome or Buenos