The inauguration of Pontifical University of Mexico's new child and youth protection centre. CNS photo/courtesy Father Juan J. Molina

Mexico's Pontifical University opens child and youth protection centre

By  David Agren, Catholic News Service
  • November 24, 2016

MEXICO CITY – When Father Daniel Portillo set about designing programs to protect children and address allegations of sexual abuse, he quickly encountered a core challenge in Mexico: an unwillingness to acknowledge the very existence of a problem with predatory priests.

"The first aspect to overcome is saying that this does not exist in Mexico. It exists. Pedophilia among priests exists," said Father Portillo, a professor at the Pontifical University of Mexico and the director of the newly formed Center for Investigation and Interdisciplinary Training for the Protection of Minors at the school.

"We were in denial, thinking and supposing that it didn't exist or it wasn't here or it was an American or Anglo-Saxon problem," Father Portillo said. "It's a problem hitting us at a global level."

Sex crimes committed by priests against children have caused scandals in Mexico and undercut the church's credibility.

That credibility was especially hurt by revelations that the Legionaries of Christ founder, Father Marciel Maciel, who was considered close with some in the Catholic hierarchy and the country's political and economic elites, sexually abused seminarians. The allegations of abuse made against Father Maciel stayed out of the press, while an advertising boycott was brought against a lone news outlet to report the scandal in the late 1990s.

In 2006, after a two-year investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI called on Father Maciel to renounce public ministry as a priest and spend the rest of his life in prayer and penitence. He died in 2008.

Today the issue of protecting children appears to be attracting attention and action on the part of the Catholic Church in Mexico and Father Portillo said the training centre will start receiving diocesan groups in early 2017. The centre, which replicates a similar centre at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, will train "specialists in theology, spirituality, psychology, and canon and civil law" to work on the diocesan level in child protection, Father Portillo said.

Mexico-pontifical-university-centre-webFather Daniel Portillo, a professor at the Pontifical University of Mexico says Catholics in his country are slow to recognize the problem of predatory priests. (CNS Photo/David Argen)

Interest in Mexico appears strong. The university hosted the Congress for the Protection of Minors Nov. 8-10, attracting 450 participants – 200 more than expected – including vicars general, superiors of religious congregations, seminary rectors and religious.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston also participated in the gathering and shared experiences from north of the border, where abuse cases have damaged victims, harmed the church and brought costly litigation. The church in Mexico has avoided legal consequences in abuse cases because the country's legal system does not hold employers legally responsible for their employees' actions.

Father Portillo said the lack of legal pressure resulted in some complacency on the abuse issue in Mexico.

Cardinal O'Malley's main message to attendees was that "we need to be totally transparent on this issue of child protection," said Trinitarian Father Juan Molina, director of the U.S. bishops' office on Latin America, who traveled to Mexico City for the conference with the cardinal.

In the U.S. church, "everyone is on board" with the goal of protecting children, Father Molina said.

The U.S. bishops first adopted their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" in 2002 and revised it in 2005 and 2011. It outlines how church leaders must provide a safe environment for children and young people in church-sponsored activities.

Father Portillo said Mexico has come a long way in recognizing the problem of sexual abuse by clergy, although the issue of abusive priests proved to be inconvenient in that past.

There has not been a "watershed moment" to cause rapid change, like the investigative report in 2002 that exposed abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, Father Portillo said.

The Boston situation – presented in the movie "Spotlight" – "caused reflection," Father Portillo said. The film looks at the Boston Globe daily newspaper's investigation into church leaders covering up abuse allegations.

News coverage in Mexico, however, he said, "is mostly sensationalism and scandalous, but we forget that these stories should be confronting us."

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