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Alleged abuse victim continues fight against clergyman in Mexico

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; A04

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."

A 27-year-old barely a year into the priesthood, Father Teddy, as Baquedano was known, was witty and outgoing, joining in the dancing at parties, breaking into traditional Mexican songs.

Chavez said she liked him too, until the day he grabbed her in the family's living room and started kissing her so hard it hurt. The alleged abuse escalated during Baquedano's eight months in San Francisco and on visits back from his next posting, to South Korea. During almost daily visits to her house, Chavez said, Baquedano would come into her room and rub his hands over her. On overnight stays, she said, he stripped off his clothes and got into bed with her. And once, Chavez, who has epilepsy, said she regained consciousness from a grand mal seizure to find Baquedano fondling her.

A petite, popular girl who enjoyed playing volleyball, Chavez said she started binge eating, falling into fits of rage and waking up with night terrors, maladies that would plague her long into adulthood. At one point, Chavez said, she demanded to know whether Baquedano had done this to anyone else. "He took out a picture and showed me a girl from Mexico," Chavez recalled.

By the time Baquedano made his last visit to San Francisco en route to his next posting, in Mexico, Chavez was 16 and able to fight him off, she said.

But it wasn't until 1994, when she was in her 30s, that Chavez said she felt ready to file a police report and disclose the abuse to church officials. "I felt that if I didn't come out and warn people about this priest," she said, "I'd be just as much of a criminal as he was."

Church officials respond

Although police could not pursue a criminal case because the statue of limitations had expired, San Francisco church leaders were able to locate Baquedano in Yucatan. They sent letters to the archbishop of Yucatan at the time, Manuel Castro Ruiz, asking him to conduct an investigation.

"We sincerely feel that we have a moral obligation to Miss Chavez to pursue [this]," wrote then-Auxiliary Bishop Patrick J. McGrath, who is now bishop of San Jose.

In response, Castro sent back a written statement in Spanish signed by Baquedano in which the priest detailed a relationship with Chavez but admitted no wrongdoing. "Among the members of the family, I was closest with Sylvia," Baquedano wrote. "I never thought nor felt that my friendship and affection would do her harm."

When nothing further happened, Chavez said, she grew disillusioned with the church.

In 2002, Chavez tried once more, encouraged by a new initiative to reach out to abuse victims.

"We felt that Sylvia was very trustworthy and very credible," said John C. Wester, then San Francisco's auxiliary bishop and now bishop of Salt Lake City. "We were determined to help."

Wester agreed to send another letter to the Yucatan archbishop, now Berlie, and said he also spoke to Berlie about the case in person. But after Wester told Chavez he would be unable to arrange for her to meet Berlie during a visit he made to San Francisco, a frustrated Chavez sought legal help.

Her attorney, Jeff Anderson, also sent a letter to Berlie informing him of her allegations and once more requesting that Baquedano be kept from children. In February 2003, the Yucatan Archdiocese's judicial vicar, Gabriel Gamboa Crespo, wrote that although Chavez's allegation was the only one against Baquedano, the priest's access to children would be restricted. Gamboa sent a similar letter to Wester.

Wester said he was satisfied. "I felt that if an authority in another diocese was not taking us seriously I would call the [Papal] Nuncio [in Rome] and have him take it from there. But my impression was that [Berlie] was taking it seriously."

Chavez was skeptical. So in 2006, as her civil suit neared settlement, she asked Anderson and other lawyers traveling to Mexico to see for themselves.

Although Baquedano was out of town when the lawyers visited the parish he was then pastor of, Anderson said they talked to local residents about the priest's duties and viewed his living quarters. "They were literally attached to a school. There were more than a hundred children in the playground right outside his door," Anderson said. He wrote to Berlie decrying what he'd found.

"We are shocked and dismayed that you have not kept your word," his letter said. "This man is a serious risk to the welfare of the children."

This time there was no reply.

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