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ARGENTINA | 30-11-2019 10:50

‘Survivors, not victims’ – ex-Próvolo students finally find justice in court

Celebrations in Mendoza as two Catholic priests accused of sexually assaulting and raping students at Antonio Próvolo Institute for the deaf are sentenced to over 40 years in prison.

“Culpable.” The word barely came out of the speaker before the cheers erupted. People clapped, hugged and cried. Shouts of glee cut the nervous silence that had settled over the three or four dozen people gathered on the front steps of Mendoza’s courthouse, as they eagerly awaited the verdict against two priests and a gardener accused of shocking crimes of sexual abuse and rape at a school for deaf children run by the Catholic Church.

Hours before, supporters began to arrive at the courthouse to show solidarity with the victims at the Antonio Próvolo Institute in nearby Luján de Cuyo.

The sentencing was closed to the public, so advocates and allies huddled around mobile phones outside, watching a livestream of the jury’s announcement while others craned their necks to hear the scratchy official broadcast coming through over the loudspeakers.

As the reader ticked off the various counts — “hecho uno, hecho dos, hecho tres...” — the response grew louder with every additional guilty charge.

On Monday, two Catholic priests — Nicolas Corradi, 83, and Hugo Corbacho, 59 — were convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse as well as corruption of minors. They were sentenced to 42 and 45 years in prison, respectively. A former gardener at the school, Armando Ramón Gómez Bravo, received 18 years in prison on charges related to the corruption of minors.

Students, in coming forward, detailed abuses over the course of more than a decade, from 2005 to 2016. There remain fears that this may be just the tip of the iceberg. Sergio Salinas, the vice-president of human rights organisation Xumek and one of the lawyers on the plaintiff legal team, pointed out, “that’s just what we know about.”

The age of the victims today ranges from late teens to 20s. And their adolescence, their lives, for years to come, will largely be defined by the trauma.

The convictions are the culmination of a legal battle that’s lasted more than three years. It pitted roughly 20 deaf students and a team of Mendoza-based attorneys working pro bono, some from Xumek, against the powerful establishments of the Church and the State.

All the defendants maintained their innocence. Only Corbacho testified on his own behalf.

A three-judge panel eventually delivered the verdict on the last day the State could legally keep Corradi in custody. Argentine law seeks to prevent “excessive” detention without formal conviction by limiting pre-trial detention to three years. Corradi was arrested on November 25, 2016. The verdict was given on that same date, three years later. All defendants were under house arrest prior to the trial.

“Now, they become survivors, not victims,” said Salinas, speaking about the children and teens who endured the abuse.

PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOUR

This case raises particular concerns for the Catholic Church and its leadership, not for the first time.

Italian priest Corradi’s past is riddled with accusations of sexual malfeasance, much of which allegedly took place at other Antonio Próvolo institutes, with the Mendoza school one of a global network that serves deaf children from youth into teenage years. Corradi arrived in Mendoza in 1998 to assume leadership of the school from the La Plata site in Buenos Aires province. Prior to Argentina, he was in Verona, Italy.

Early in the investigation, it was revealed that Corradi had been accused of similar sexual abuses in both Verona and La Plata, and that Pope Francis was notified of the alleged behaviour at the centres here in Argentina. Still, the pontiff remained quiet, despite the complaint hailing from his come country.

“This conviction highlights the permanent system of abuse of power in the Catholic Church, which the Pope continues to maintain. It’s an institution that continually violates human rights,” Carlos Lombardi, the counsel for the Network of Survivors of Ecclesiastical Abuse in Argentina, told the Times.

Only four priests have received “expulsion” from the Church in Argentina after a legal conviction, according to Lombardi.

Prior to Monday’s verdict, the Church had kept largely quiet on the Próvolo case, in keeping with its tepid response to the larger global scandal.

Pope Francis did appoint Archbishop Alberto Bochatey, the auxiliary bishop for La Plata, to investigate the Company of Mary, the group that runs the Próvolo institutes in July 2017. Bochatey, however, said that despite requests for “forgiveness” from the victims, “they sent [him] packing.”

This week’s conviction has compelled the archbishop to publicly ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Catholic Church, a request he issued two days later, alongside a statement uploaded to the Argentine Synod website saying the “canon investigation process” would continue.

Corradi’s pattern of behaviour demonstrates how the priest preyed on vulnerable children left in his care as well as sanctioned his inner circle to do the same. Salinas explained to the Times how the priests deliberately neglected their legal obligation to teach the children how to communicate in sign language, thereby crippling them from being able to talk amongst one another about abuses or issue cohesive complaints to staff or family.

Students like Ezequiel Villalonga, one of the case’s key whistleblowers and an early addition to the official complaint, weren’t ever taught sign language despite being at the school since childhood. Many learned it as adults only after leaving.

“If you don’t have language, you lose the ability to develop awareness and recognition of all these other experiences and behaviours,” Salinas told the Times. “It’s hard to have any concept of ideas such as your own physical wellbeing or of your sexuality.”

Victims testified they were occasionally hit by teachers and would often be subjected to unwanted sexual encounters in the school bathrooms. They also recounted how some older students emulated abusive behaviours while younger kids frequently demonstrated symptoms of trauma through self-exposure, violence or even incontinence.

Advocates criticise the local government, with some saying they are implicated in the cover-up, too. For example, the municipality of Luján de Cuyo purchased the building for 153 million pesos and converted it into the Parque Cívico de Luján. It re-opened in the middle of October, and today houses a number of administrative offices, a bank, a family court room and a park, among other things.

“How can you go and pay fees in the same place where such terrible things happened,” questioned Dalma Salinas, a member of the Collective for the Restitution of Rights to the Survivors of Próvolo.

“The systematic selection of victims, the torture they endured and the coverup of the Catholic Church brings to mind some of the darkest times in our country’s history,” said Sofía Benzaquen, a fellow-member.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

On Sunday, the night before the verdict would be announced, an intimate gathering took place at the Xumek offices in Mendoza. Roughly 25 people gathered in a small conference room, some seated around a round table, others standing along the walls. Yerba mate and medialunas sat in the centre of the table, passed silently among attendees, many of whom had become friends as a result of this process.

Erica Labeguerie, the sister of a survivor, served as an interpreter between the deaf former students and the rest of the group.

There were survivors, those who lodged the formal complaint, and their families. But there were also other victims of ecclesiastical abuse separate from the case — like two former students from Próvolo’s La Plata location — and human rights advocates. Together, they formed a small legion of supporters who had fought together for the last three years.

“The eyes of the world will be on Mendoza tomorrow,” said Fran, a Chilean transgender woman who also says she survived sexual abuse from members of the Church. “The fight here inspires the fight in my country, where it’s rampant, too. We’re using the example of Próvolo to launch our own campaign against the pact between the Church and the State that obscures justice.”

The mood oscillated between anxiety, anger, pain and cautious optimism.

“Tomorrow, I’m not afraid of anybody. My pain has already happened. The pain of not being able to be there for my child in his moment of crisis,” said the mother of one of the former students.

Salinas, who also attended the meeting, took the opportunity to answer any outstanding legal questions.He also used the moment as a chance to remind people of the gravity of the moment and lend perspective on what getting to a verdict meant in a larger context.

“What’s important tomorrow is not the number of years that could come in a potential sentence — whether or not they give us the maximum or something close to it — it’s the guilty conviction,” he said.

For lawyers and activists, the years prior were filled with gruelling testimony, long hours and, at times, public scrutiny. But many, like Benzaquen, were humbled by the bravery of the Próvolo students.

“I can’t really say it’s been difficult for me. Difficult is the path the survivors and their families had to follow,” she said.

For the former students, those years required them to re-live painful moments and unearth what they once believed to be shameful secrets. But it was also a period of self-empowerment at the tail end of more than a decade of silent suffering.

“Those of us from the Próvolo in Mendoza said: ‘no more fear. We have the power,’” Villalonga said with the help of an interpreter in August, when the trial began.

‘YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO BE ANGRY’

“You have a right to be angry. You have a right to feel whatever you feel and express it however you want, and you have the support of all of us in that,” said Julia Morcos, another member of the Collective who took on a leadership role in the weekend’s events, as she spoke to th group. “But we just ask that you’re careful with your words so that we can continue with this fight beyond.”

At 8am on Monday morning, the group gathered at Mendoza’s courthouse. They plastered the walls with posters that read “Don’t forget” above photos of Próvolo defendants and strung up two large banners spanning between the front columns. There was a station where passerby could write a note on construction paper cut out in the form of hands — a poignant reminder of the identity of the case’s victims — that would later be delivered to the former students. Many people donned red or orange bandanas, colours used throughout the campaign, milling nervously as they sipped mate and posed for the occasional press photo.

Eventually, the crowd that had gathered would soon receive the news they so desperately hoped would arrive — a guilty verdict and what Lombardi called a “historic” conviction.

“The conviction is historic because of the length of sentence, the condition of the victims [deaf] and the status of the perpetrators [the priests]. It will be a very important precedent in resolving similar cases,” Lombardi said.

As the self-proclaimed survivors streamed out of the courthouse, they were greeted by a crowd giving silent applause in sign language — hands lifted in the air with quick twists of the wrist back-and-forth.

Yet the heartfelt celebration came with an equally steadfast commitment to continue the fight.

Labeguerie and other relatives stood on the steps and recited a list of their remaining demands from a document they’d prepared ahead of time. In it, the relatives called for reparations for former students and their families, a government commitment to invest in resources for the deaf and disabled community, the continued prosecution of abusers and, above all, the separation of Church and State.

Two more trials will continue next year, according to Lucas Lecour, president of Xumek and member of the plaintiffs’ legal team.

The first involves a number of administrators and staff at the school who are accused of knowing about the abuse but doing nothing to stop it. Another involves a Japanese nun who worked at the institute, Kumiko Kosaka, accused of aiding the cover-up.

“These are harder to prove because it’s not as obvious, but we still think there’s ample evidence,” he said.

Meanwhile, the early stages of a case against educators against educators at the Próvolo Institute in La Plata in Buenos Aires Provinces are underway. It pertains to the years Corradi was there before being transferred to Mendoza.

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Carly Graf

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