The case of Julio César Grassi broke in 2002 when two young men accused the Argentinian priest of sexually abusing them while they were minors living under his care in the foundation he ran.Grassi called his foundation Felices los Niños, “Happy Children". It housed several thousand poor children in the western suburbs of Buenos Aires.
Despite his protestations of innocence, Fr Grassi was sentenced in 2009 to 15 years in prison. His numerous appeals were all dismissed and, last Tuesday, the Supreme Court finally upheld his conviction. He has been incarcerated since September 2013.
“Grassi gave thousands of young people a chance to study, to have a roof over their heads. Faced with abuse, his victims - then 15 years old - felt enormous helplessness without knowing who to turn to. They were overwhelmed by shame,” explained Miriam Lewin, the journalist who exposed the case.
“His power seemed indomitable,” he added. The priest was a very prominent figure who regularly appeared on television to raise funds for his foundation.“ Justice was done in condemning a powerful and dangerous man who benefited from the help of the best lawyers in the country,” said Juan Pablo Gallego, one of the victims’ lawyers.
In this case, the pope's attitude was criticized, both when he was in Buenos Aires and after his election to the papacy. At the Vatican, Francis received several judges involved in the case, meetings which some saw as him exerting pressure, even though all of them said the Grassi affair never came up.
Moreover, all the judges came out in favor of Grassi’s conviction. The judges also received three volumes of a 2,600-page file that tended to exonerate Grassi. This counter-inquiry was commissioned by the Argentinian Episcopal Conference, then presided over by Francis, in his role as Cardinal Bergoglio.
The country’s bishops appeared divided over the appropriateness of this investigation, which cast doubt on victims’ testimony and glossed over important issues such as Grassi’s personality. Grassi’s lawyers used the file in legal proceedings, which, in Argentina, place the onus on the accused to prove their innocence. “Grassi has never been protected by Bergoglio or the Church hierarchy,” says Brother Juan Ignacio Fuentes, a Marist and a specialist in sexual abuse issues in Argentinian Catholic education.“
Fr Grassi was supported by certain sectors of the Church that felt under attack,” he added. A succession of statements by Cardinal Bergoglio reveal an increasingly muted support for the priest. Francis, who served as archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013, was also criticized for not replying to victims’ requests to meet him in 2003 after they received death threats. It was only later, when he was confronted with the issue of human trafficking, that he took stock of their suffering.
During a seminar held last Thursday in Rome by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Brother Fuentes explained the state of mind of Argentinian clerics in the wake of the dictatorship. The country’s military leaders had used scandals to discredit priests who opposed the regime.“ In Argentina, the issue of sexual abuse, both in the Church and in society, has only really been dealt with for eight or ten years," he said. “Adults grew up under thirty or forty years of dictatorship; it was a true training in silence.”
A Salesian, then a priest of the Buenos Aires suburb of Moron, Grassi was never under the direct authority of Cardinal Bergoglio. According to the bishop of Moron, who for a long time defended Grassi, Grassi was relieved of all pastoral functions from the moment legal proceedings against him began and is forbidden from saying mass in public. A canonical inquiry has also been launched, and since December the file has been with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which must now decide whether Grassi should be defrocked.
“Grassi cannot continue to work as a priest, he has done much harm to the Catholic Church,” said Gallego.“The pope must send a clear message to society."
Argentinian church shamed by Grassi affair Éric Domergue, Buenos Aires and Nicolas Senèze, Rome March 27, 2017Tweet