Baja California and the clergy sexual abuse crisis

— Unlike the debate regarding clergy sexual abuse in California, on the other side of the fence, in the Mexican Californias, there is a deceitful tranquility.


Francisco Moreno Barrón, archbishop of Tijuana. From his diocese’s social media.

It is not that Mexico is free from clergy sexual abuse; it is that neither the Church, nor the government are willing to go deep into the issue.

By Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez

Despite the alleged existence of a “lay State” in Mexico, churches are under no pressure to report clergy sexual abuse much less to compensate the victims of it.

Last week Los Ángeles Press published a story on the wave of bankruptcies after the clergy sexual abuse crisis in California. On the surface, having half of the Roman Catholic dioceses in that state seeking the protection of Chapter 11, tells a story of turmoil.

But looks can be deceiving. As that story, linked immediately after the next paragraph stresses, the bankruptcies are from cases going back to the 20th century. They have resurfaced as the consequence of a major change in California law, a true innovation, allowing survivors of sexual violence to seek justice in civil, not penal, courts.

The experiment with restorative justice in California is about to give thousands of survivors of sexual abuse, clergy or otherwise, a chance to receive a measure of justice. Not that they will become millionaires, exempt from facing the difficulties of life, or that they will have a chance to relive their lives.

It is just that the Roman Catholic hierarchy will face the consequences of their behavior. The expected outcome is that survivors will receive a measure of compensation for the damage done to them.

On the other side of the fence that Donald Trump aims to turn into a solid wall to isolate the U.S. even further from the rest of the world, Mexican victims face a far more painful future.

It is not that the doctrine of the Catholic Church is that different in Tijuana or Mexicali from that in San Diego. It is not that crossing the border changes the rules regulating the internal life of the Church when going from the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe at 2487 Tierra Blanca Street, at Mexicali, to the eponymous parish at 135 Fourth Street at Calexico.

 
Enrique Sánchez Martínez, bishop of Mexicali, Baja California, preaches to his congretation.

A mere two miles, a little more than three kilometers separate both Churches from each other. Unless one is truly familiar with both parishes, it is hard to distinguish them just by looking at the pictures of the masses, baptisms, and weddings celebrated in each of them.

The distance would be even smaller, little less than nine hundred meters or little more than nine hundred yards, your choice, if the preferred church on the Mexican side was the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexicali, standing three blocks from the international border.

As a previous piece in this series proved when comparing the dioceses of El Paso, Texas, with Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, what changes between the Californias, Mexican or American, is not the beliefs, the practices, the rites. Those are impossible to distinguish for the untrained eye.

What changes, as proved by AB 218, the bill that forced six Roman Catholic dioceses to seek the protection of Chapter 11, is the laws.

While in Sacramento, the State Legislature of California was willing to offer a measure of justice to the victims of sexual abuse, in Mexicali and La Paz, the capital cities of Baja California and Baja California Sur, respectively, the legislatures have what their members see as more pressing issues to deal with.

But it is not only the lack of political will from the Mexican lawmakers. That is a major difference, relevant to understand the issue. It is also that unlike the state attorneys of both Mexican Californias, in the American California, there is a long history of going after predators, clergy or otherwise, Roman Catholic or otherwise.

In Mexico, despite the flamboyant rhetoric of the political elites, always willing to put a spin to prove how committed they are with the popular causes, there is no such history.

That explains why the California state attorney deposed Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the now emeritus archbishop of Mexico City, an ally and protector of infamous Mexican clergy sexual predators as Marcial Maciel and Nicolás Aguilar Rivera, during the process that forced the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to pay more than sixty million dollars to victims of Aguilar Rivera among other clerics.

A previous installment of this series, linked immediately below, provided details of how Cardinal Rivera Carrera sent priest Aguilar Rivera from Tehuacán, in the Mexican state of Puebla, to Los Angeles, despite his record as a sexual predator.

Aguilar Rivera is only one example of Mexican Catholic clergy going North on their search for new victims, as Jeffrey David Newell, a German American priest who went the other way around, settling in Tijuana, Baja California, after his victims in California made the U.S. bishops aware of how he attacked them.

Light of the World

But that also explains why Naasón Joaquín García, the leader of the Church of the Light of the World or Luz del Mundo, as it is called in Spanish, who has been repeatedly accused of abuse in Mexico, is in jail in California, where the state attorney was willing to confront the political storm that followed his arrest and trial.

The case of Naasón Joaquín García also proves that the main issue with sexual abuse is not the institutional design of the Church-State relation. On paper, Mexico has had a “lay State” (Estado laico).

Unlike most capital cities all over Latin America, whose streets and parks sport the names of cardinals, bishops, and other clergymen, in Mexico City there is no main street or major park honoring the memory of a former archbishop of the capital.

The “lay State” makes unthinkable to even consider ideas now in vogue in the United States, as having the Ten Commandments in full display on each classroom or forcing students to read the Bible or any other religious book.

 
Miguel Ángel Alba Díaz (left) current bishop of La Paz, and Miguel Ángel Espinoza Garza, coadjutor bishop.

Even privileges as a special treatment during trials that exist in the laws of South American countries for bishops and other top leaders of the Catholic Church have been unknown in Mexico since the mid-19th century.

The fact is that churches, as large as the Roman Catholic and as relatively small as the Light of the World, use the weakness or unwillingness of Mexican law enforcement, state and district attorneys, and judges, state or federal, to prosecute sexual offenders.

It is not out of chance that some fundamentalist branches of the Latter-Day Saints, the so-called Mormons, use Mexico to conceal polygamists way too notorious in Utah and other U.S. jurisdictions with large groups of members of that denomination since the mid-1870s.

It is not as if Mexico lacks its own groups willing to challenge the laws regarding marriage. It is just that it is easier for Mormon fundamentalists to hide in remote places in Chihuahua, Sonora, and Durango, to pursue their understanding of that faith, given the lack of interest of the Mexican authorities to enforce the law.

Then there is the issue of how hard is to mobilize public opinion in Mexico. Not that there is no information about sexual abuse, clergy or otherwise. It is just that victims in Mexico face more hurdles to organize themselves, to mobilize, and to turn their pain into political capital.

The very design of the Mexican institutions of justice also plays a role. It is far harder to prove your case in Mexican courts than in their U.S. counterparts. That is the case because of the extreme formalism of the Mexican law, and the difficulties to accept any kind of innovation.

If that was not enough, there is the issue of corruption in the Mexican system of justice, a feature fueling the bad grades Mexican judges get in almost any poll about their behavior, that was the issue of a story, published only in Spanish in Los Ángeles Press, going over the data of six years of polling on the trust and the perception of corruption of the Mexican judges.

Deceitful tranquility

It is not only old school bribes to turn rulings. It is the very way in which the authorities deal with a report, making almost impossible to prove the abusive nature of certain attitudes and practices of those who have a chance to practice abuse at colleges or churches.

It is that, as other series published by Los Ángeles Press prove, there is a concerted effort from Mexican authorities, federal or state, regardless of political affiliation, to conceal and even to falsify evidence.

That has brought an epidemic of systematic false positives, what Guadalupe Lizárraga aptly calls “false guilty parties” in major cases such as the assassination of Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach, to name the most recent of them.

Only because of the combined effects of these features, the Roman Catholic dioceses of the Mexican Californias appear to be in calm, while their counterparts in the U.S. California face what could be one of their major challenges since their foundation.

On the southern side of the fence, sexual predators, clergy or otherwise, remain protected by a system of justice about to be upended by a reform that seems to be fixated on imitating only one aspect of the U.S. system of justice, that of electing the judges, leaving untouched other key issues such as the appointment of the State and district attorneys or the accountability expected from the police.

On top of the issues coming out of the choices made by the Mexican political elites over the last century, shaping an inefficient system of justice, there is also the reality that ever since the passing of the Volstead Act by the U.S. Congress in 1919, Tijuana and other Mexican cities in the U.S.-Mexico border, became prime locations for the trade of illegal substances and practices.

 
The Ecclesiastical Province of Baja California.

That is not exclusive of the U.S.-Mexico border. One can find similar asymmetries even in the European Union, in the Spanish town of La Jonquera, in the border with France, and in other border regions worldwide, where changes in laws and regulations create opportunities for business, crime, and predatory activities.

The only other issue worth mentioning is that, unlike what happens in the United States conference of bishops since the Aughts, when there was a realization of the negative effects of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, their Mexican colleagues are still trying to deny the true reach of the crisis, with little or no pressure from Rome to address the issues, to assist the victims and prevent sexual abuse.

That is the only explanation to the fact that, as a story published in this series, less than half the Mexican Roman Catholic dioceses have complied with the minimum requirement of setting up a commission to prevent clergy sexual abuse in their territory.

In the Mexican Californias, out of four dioceses shaping the so-called Ecclesiastical Province of Baja California, only one, Mexicali, has a commission to prevent clergy sexual abuse, the other three dioceses, the metropolis of that province, the archdiocese of Tijuana, and the dioceses of La Paz, Southern Baja California, and Ensenada, do not have a commission and it seems there is no hurry or interest at either the Mexican Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Nunciature in Mexico or Rome itself, to force those three dioceses to set up their commissions, as Box 1 summarizes.

 

All four dioceses in the Province of Baja California, have a record of reports of sexual abuse. From Mexicali, Los Ángeles Press published previously details of the protection offered by bishop José Isidro Guerrero Macías to predator priests in that diocese in the story, only available in Spanish, linked immediately after this paragraph.

Bishop Accountability has reports of at least one case for each of the other dioceses in the province. From Ensenada, to Tijuana, and La Paz.

A notable feature of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Mexican Californias is better appreciated when considering the relations and lineages that exist among the bishops in the four dioceses there, their predecessors and other bishops in Mexico.

 
Current and former bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Baja California.

At least three features emerge of the previous graph. The first is the role played by the relationship between Italian diplomat Girolamo Prigione and bishops Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo in Tijuana and Manuel Pérez-Gil in Mexicali.

Although both were already bishops in those dioceses before Prigione’s arrival, they were able to develop a close relationship with the then apostolic delegate. After his stint at the border, Prigione moved his influence in Rome to appoint Posadas as bishop of Cuernavaca.

Even if the move was a sidestep, since Posadas was already a bishop, Cuernavaca in the early eighties was a “diocese of reference” in Mexico. Bishop Sergio Méndez Arceo was one of the brightest minds of his generation in the Mexican episcopate.

Unlike other bishops, he embraced the consequences of the second Vatican Council without hesitation. He was an able polemicist and a notable speaker. His weekly homilies or sermons received the attention of the Mexican and international media, not only because of the use of Mariachis and other groups of popular Mexican music during the mass, but also because of the solid arguments with which he was willing to criticize the Mexican and U.S. governments on almost any issue.

He played a key role as mediator when a Mexican leftist guerrilla kidnapped Rubén Figueroa, then elected governor of the state of Guerrero in the mid-1970s.

His succession was a national issue in the Mexican media. So even if there was no real promotion for Posadas, he traded Tijuana for Cuernavaca to destroy Méndez Arceo’ legacy. From there, he was awarded with the crown jewel of the Mexican episcopate, the almighty see of Guadalajara, which granted him access to the College of Cardinals and the opportunity to promote his underlings.

Among them was Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, now emeritus of that see, who succeeded Posadas after his brutal assassination in the parking lot of Guadalajara International Airport, when he went there to pick up Girolamo Prigione who was traveling from Mexico City on May 23rd, 1993.

 

Posadas had already secured Sandoval’s appointment as bishop of Ciudad Juárez, as the story linked immediately below, available only in Spanish, about sexual abuse in that diocese of the Chihuahua-Texas international border, describes.

Prigione developed a similar relationship with Manuel Pérez-Gil, bishop of Mexicali since the mid-1960s. Prigione promoted Pérez-Gil to the then diocese, now archdiocese of Tlalnepantla in Central Mexico.

Besides Prigione’s relation with those two former bishops of Tijuana and Mexicali, it is worth considering the role played by another disciple of Posadas, current bishop of Zamora, in the Central state of Michoacan, Javier Navarro Rodríguez.

 
Javier Navarro Rodríguez, bishop of Zamora, Michoacán.

He is relevant because of his relationship with Posadas, and another former bishop of Tijuana, now emeritus archbishop of Yucatán, Emilio Berlié Belaunzarán. Navarro Rodríguez, Berlié Belaunzarán, and Sandoval Íñiguez were all disciples of the late Cardinal Posadas and close to Prigione.

As such they are part of a dense and complex network of high-ranking Mexican Catholic clerics considered in the Spanish-only story on sexual abuse in the dioceses of Chihuahua linked three paragraphs above. But he is also relevant because he was able to promote Rafael Valdez Torres, to his current position as first bishop of Ensenada, who used to be one of his priests in Zamora.

 
Rafael Valdez Torres, bishop of Ensenada, during a mass, 2024.

Bishop Accountability and Mexican NGO Spes Viva named Navarro Rodríguez and Sandoval Íñiguez as part of a group of living Mexican bishops actively protecting priests with credible accusations of clergy sexual abuse, as the story linked immediately after tells.

The Impossible Comparison

One measure of the differences between the Mexican and the American Roman Catholic dioceses’ approach and understanding of the pervasive effects of the clergy sexual abuse crisis is that while almost all U.S. dioceses have a section within their websites dedicated to provide at least a basic list with the names of the priests, deacons, male religious, and—in some cases—even the lay personnel with credible accusations of sexual abuse, such lists are impossible to get from the few Mexican dioceses having functional websites.

As the story linked immediately below proves, there are dioceses such as that of Tehuantepec claiming to have a commission to prevent sexual abuse, but there is no place where one can find information as to how to contact said commission.

In that regard, it is almost impossible to offer a systematic comparison of the Roman Catholic dioceses on the U.S. California and on the Mexican Californias.

The information from the four dioceses in the Mexican Californias facilitates a partial comparison with the U.S. California and stresses one additional difference between the Catholic Church on both sides of the fence.

 

First, Table 1, provides a summary of the basic data from the four dioceses in the Ecclesiastical Province of Baja California. Notice the high share, 95 percent, of Catholics that the archdiocese of Tijuana claims on the third column.

Table 2 summarizes, on the other hand, the data on religious affiliation from the 2020 Mexican Census. As the eighth column, labeled Relative Catholics, shows the share of Roman Catholics in the Mexican Census is only 61.94 percent.

 

That is a 32 percent points difference between the claim made by the archdiocese of Tijuana in the information they report to Rome and published by the Roman Curia in their Annuario Pontificio the Pontifical Yearbook, and the data coming from the 2020 Mexican Census.

Unlike the standard practice from the Census Bureau in the U.S., which avoids asking questions regarding religious affiliation, in Mexico as in Canada and other countries in the Western hemisphere and in Europe, there is a metric of religious affiliation.

The Mexican Conference of Catholic Bishops has no measure of its own to claim a 95 percent affiliation to that Church in the three municipalities shaping the archdiocese of Tijuana (Playas de Rosarito, Tecate, and Tijuana). The overestimation is equivalent to a third of the population of those municipalities.

To facilitate the comparison and to expand it to the other three dioceses in the Ecclesiastical Province of Baja California, Table 3 summarizes the data reported by the Mexican Bishops to the so-called Annuario Pontificio, a global official source of information of the Roman Catholic Church and the 2020 Mexican Census.

 

As can be see there, all four dioceses overestimate the share of Roman Catholics in their territories. That overestimation is harder to understand in the case of the diocese of La Paz, since that diocese has the exact same territory of the state of Baja California Sur.

There is no need for the bishop of the diocese to do any calculation from the data in the 2020 Mexican Census. Despite that, the Roman Catholic diocese of La Paz claims having over 61,000 more members than the 2020 Mexican Census gives them.

There is no explanation of why or how they calculate those 61, 344 more Catholics, an error of more than seven percent the total of the population in that diocese and state in Mexico.

Overestimation

Although not as flagrant as in the case of Tijuana and La Paz, the other two dioceses in the Province of Baja California, also overestimate the share of Catholics.

The total overestimation of the Catholic population in the Mexican Californias depicts a Roman Catholic hierarchy unable to accept the most basic data of reality. As far as the total population, the bishops accumulate an error of almost 730 thousand persons, and it is even larger when dealing with its own flock, since they assume that there are roughly 4.5 million Catholics in the Mexican Californias, when the Mexican Census Bureau estimates the number of Roman Catholics in little more than 3.1 million.

The consequences of that overestimation impact the very understanding of the Church’s role in the difficult settings that exist in border towns such as Tijuana and Mexicali. Suffice to say that there is no way to justify the calculation made by that archdiocese of the number of Catholics per priest in that district of the Catholic Church. It is, in more than one respect, a reflection of the difficulties that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Mexico has when understanding its own reality.

This overestimation of the share of Catholics in the national, state, and municipal data a compare to those of the census is part of a sort of spirit or attitude of the Mexican Catholic hierarchy that dismisses the ongoing demographic change depicted by the data on Table 2, and the real causes of that change.

Table 2 tells the story of a country where Catholicism loses ground not to the so-called “sects”, as the Mexican bishops used to call any non-Catholic group back in the nineties, but also—as it happens in the United States and elsewhere—the story of a country where those declaring no religious affiliation are more than the Evangelical Christians.

As Table 2 proves that is a fact on the four dioceses of the ecclesiastical province of Baja California and it is true also when one looks at the same data for the three Mexican states (both Californias and Sonora) shaping that territory.

 

Box 2, provides the data on the year of foundation of the four dioceses of the province and the date (2006) when Tijuana became an archdiocese and the metropolis of this ecclesiastical region.

Finally, as the previous installment of this series did with the Roman Catholic dioceses of California, Table 4 offers an estimation of the number of predator clergymen and victims of clergy sexual abuse.

 

 

As that previous instalment explained, both estimations are based on the so-called Sauvé Report, commissioned by the French Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops.

The Sauvé Report states that…

…a rate of around three percent of priests and members of religious orders who committed sexual violence against children, constitutes a minimum rate and a relevant point of comparison with other countries.

It is impossible to replicate the procedure followed by the Sauvé Report. The estimates provided here for each of the dioceses in the Mexican Californias are “static” in the sense that they only consider the current number of priests. In this text I do not calculate sexual abuse over different periods of time as the French report does.

Following the parameters set by the Sauvé Report I offer an upper limit or maximum and a lower limit or minimum estimate for each of the dioceses in the Mexican Californias.

Table 4 offers an upper and lower of the estimate limit using the 25 and 63 victims per predator as the base for the estimates for each Catholic diocese.

That is a minimum estimator. There is evidence in other reports, as in the case of Australia, of dioceses where up to 15 percent of the clergy participated in predatory practices. If that was the case for other dioceses, then the limits of the range would need to be multiplied by a factor of five.

Complete Article HERE!

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