Alleged abuse victim continues fight against clergyman in Mexico

Pope Benedict XVI has marked the 5th anniversary of his election amid a continuing sex abuse scandal that's posing a serious crisis to the Roman Catholic Church. (April 19)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

For 12 years, Sylvia Chavez tried to warn leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States and Mexico about the priest she alleges sexually abused her as a child in California.

She met with church officials in San Francisco to describe the assaults, enlisted American lawyers to search for the priest in Mexico and wrote letters to two successive archbishops of Yucatan, pleading with them to keep the Rev. Teodoro Baquedano Pech away from children. At one point, she even received written assurance from the Yucatan Archdiocese that "we have taken all precautions . . . to restrict Father Baquedano's access to children and vulnerable adults."

Yet Baquedano remains in the ministry, in a case that underscores the challenges that U.S. victims of clergy abuse face when their alleged abusers move overseas. A photo taken on Easter shows the priest, 70, officiating at a baptism in one of several rural hamlets outside Yucatan's state capital, Merida, where he conducts services.

"When I saw that picture on my computer screen, I wanted to pick up the monitor and throw it," said Chavez, a 54-year-old preschool teacher who still lives in San Francisco and struggles with what she says happened to her between ages 11 and 16.

Although Baquedano has denied abusing Chavez, the Archdiocese of San Francisco settled a lawsuit in 2006, paying her $300,000 without admitting culpability. Nevertheless, Chavez said, she "cannot rest" as long as Baquedano remains a priest with access to children. "It's not over at all," she said. "He's a criminal who uses his collar as a weapon. If he hurt me, he's still capable of hurting others."

In recent weeks, the Catholic Church has faced a barrage of allegations that it allowed clergy members accused of molesting children in the United States to continue working as priests overseas. In some cases, the priests have remained in the ministry despite concerted efforts by U.S. victims and U.S. church officials to hold them accountable.

In heavily Catholic Mexico, the presence of such priests is attracting increasing media scrutiny, including a recent magazine article that named Baquedano and 24 other current and former priests accused of abuse in the United States who later moved to Mexico. But although media outlets in Yucatan have followed up on Baquedano's case, the articles about him haven't generated much of a public outcry, according to Jesus Delgado Centeno, director of a network of online publications in the southeastern Mexican state.

Reached by phone in his church living quarters, Baquedano said repeatedly, "I don't want to answer any questions. Please call the archbishop about this."

Armando Martinez, an attorney for the archbishop of Yucatan, Emilio Carlos Berlie Belaunzaran, said that after determining that there were no accusations against Baquedano by anyone in Yucatan, church officials saw no need for further action. "The archbishop has zero tolerance for abuse of minors. . . . But you need evidence. We can't remove someone simply because of a letter alerting us to an accusation [in the United States.] He wasn't even convicted there."

Still, one local political leader has taken notice. "We need to investigate exactly what duties this priest has and if he really is in contact with children," said Bertha Perez Medina, a member of Yucatan's state assembly. "Where was the moral responsibility of [church officials] if they knew of these accusations and continued to protect him and allow him to continue working with children? How could this happen?"

Molestation allegations

Sylvia Chavez was 11 in 1967 when Baquedano arrived at her San Francisco parish. Her Salvadoran-born father and Mexican American mother were delighted.

For her father, a factory worker who had difficulty speaking English, "the idea that there would finally be a priest who could say Mass in Spanish, who my parents could invite over to the house, was a dream come true."

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