A Washington Post investigation published Tuesday alleges that those at the highest ranks of the Vatican, including Pope Francis, were made aware of horrific abuse allegations in three Catholic schools for deaf children but did little to punish the accused or stop the abuse from continuing.
The allegations, the first set of which emerged in 2006, led to the 2016 arrest of an 83-year-old Italian priest named Nicola Corradi, who was thought to be the “ringleader” of the abuse, according to the Post. Charges are pending against 12 other suspects, and a 14th has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison for rape and sexual abuse.
The abuse reportedly began in the 1950s and lasted through the 1980s at the Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf in Verona, Italy, and began in the 1980s in Argentina at Provolo schools in Lujan de Cuyo and in La Plata. Corradi taught for decades in each country.
The allegations are difficult to read, and they involve countless cases of abuse of children at least as young as 7. According to the Post:
Vulnerable to the extreme, the deaf students tended to come from poor families that fervently believed in the sanctity of the church. Prosecutors say the children were fondled, raped, sometimes tied up and, in one instance, forced to wear a diaper to hide the bleeding. All the while, their limited ability to communicate complicated their ability to tell others what was happening to them. Students at the school were smacked if they used sign language. One of the few hand gestures used by the priests, victims say, was an index [finger] to lips—a demand for silence.
But the church failed to punish the accused priests. The 2006 accusation by a man named Dario Laiti led more than a dozen other former students to come forward. The victims wrote to a local bishop in 2008 (it was at that point too late to press charges). In public statements, they named 24 priests and other faculty at the school as abusers. According to the group, dozens of others had been abused but were not willing to come forward. The bishop accused the victims of lying, and the victims sued for defamation, alerting the Vatican to the allegations.
In 2010, the Vatican asked the diocese to investigate the accusations, and the diocese brought in a retired judge named Mario Sannite to lead the investigation. Sannite found most of the allegations credible but cast doubt on the former student who accused Corradi.
According to the Post, it was clear these allegations were known at the highest level of the Vatican. In 2013, the year Francis was chosen to lead the church, and again in 2014, the victims sent a letter to the pope with a list of 14 alleged abusers. They did not hear back from the Vatican, and in 2015, a group of victims and advocates traveled to Rome with hopes of meeting the pope. Two of them—including a man who said he had been raped hundreds of times by a priest when he was a boy in the late 1990s—were able to personally hand Francis a letter with the abusers’ names. Four months later, one of Francis’ close associates in the Vatican wrote the group a letter saying Francis “welcomed with lively participation what you wanted to confide in Him” but reminding the group “of what the Holy See has done and keeps on doing with unwavering commitment on clerical sexual abuses.”
But in the following years, the local bishop maintained that the group of victims—he later speculated that they were behind the Argentina allegations as well—were after the Provolo schools’ property. And after the Vatican investigation, only one priest, ordered to a life of penance and prayer, was punished. (The institution no longer serves as a school for the deaf but rents the space to another school).
The allegations arose later in Argentina, where the most recent alleged abuse occurred in 2016. But they did lead to criminal prosecutions. In 2016, an anonymous woman who had attended the school in Lujan went to a state senator with her allegations. Two days later, prosecutors raided the school and found pornography and damning letters implicating a 58-year-old Argentine priest. The authorities shut down the school that year, and they launched an investigation into the La Plata school, where they also found allegations of abuse against at least five men who worked there, including Corradi. The prosecutors allege Corradi, who is still under house arrest and who has not yet entered a plea, helped other predators at the school access the children.
According to the Post, Francis appointed a bishop to oversee the Provolo schools after the scandal. That bishop, Alberto Germán Bochatey, has said the lawyers representing the victims have overstated the allegations. “They try to build a big case that [it was a] house of horrors, 40 or 50 cases, but there are little more than 10,” he told the Post. He also said he believed the Freemasons were behind the allegations.
This week, Francis will convene a summit of prominent bishops from around the country to discuss the church’s sex abuse crisis.