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Spotlight Report

Sex abuse allegations rock bastion of Catholicism

By Leslie Moore, Globe Correspondent, 9/15/2002

Globe Staff Map
SANTA FE, Argentina - Streets are named after bishops in this flat land of cows and corn fields along the muddy Rio Parana. In the center of this provincial capital city, churches surround government buildings, and the most powerful lawmakers work under the shadow of the clergy.

But allegations have ripped through this bastion of Catholicism. Decades-old rumors and whispers gained currency last month after a book linked Archbishop Edgardo Gabriel Storni to charges of sexual abuse of minors. In addition, allegations that a coterie of clergymen accosted a priest who had criticized Storni, threatening to kill him, have prompted a police investigation that has stunned thousands of residents in this agricultural heartland.

''It fills me with shame,'' said Maria de Pompeya, a retired principal of a Catholic elementary school.

Judge Eduardo Alberto Giovannini, who is investigating the sexual abuse allegations against Storni, said the case was prompted by Olga Wornat's book ''Nuestra Santa Madre,'' which was released in early August. In Argentina, judges lead investigations, and another body determines guilt and imposes sentences.

''Given what the church means since the founding of Argentina, imagine what this case can signify for Argentina,'' said Giovannini, whose courthouse office faces the steps of the Archdiocese of Santa de la Vera Cruz.

Storni, 66, left Argentina two weeks ago to attend a scheduled event in the Vatican; some residents contend he will not return.

Meanwhile, a second judge is investigating charges against five priests, two deacons, and a notary public on the grounds that 10 days ago they allegedly coerced the Rev. Jose Guntern to sign an affidavit denying statements he had made against Storni. One priest told Guntern that ''at any moment you could die'' if he didn't sign the document, said Guntern, 82, who is now under police guard.

Outraged Santafesinos have mobilized in support of Guntern. In a gesture of solidarity, an estimated 1,500 people gathered outside his home two weeks ago to pray and sing hymns as Guntern watched from behind his window. ''It was very moving,'' said Guntern, a grandson of Swiss immigrants.

''It's heinous what has happened,'' said Ruben Zhetta, an undercover officer sitting in his 1979 Ford pickup outside Guntern's home. ''I support the father.''

Zhetta and others who stand watch on Guntern's quiet street keep 9mm pistols by their side.

Last week, a group protested at a Mass said by the Rev. Hugo Cappello, who has been accused by some residents of having tried to intimidate Guntern. According to resident Maria Elena Lociuro, after Cappello told parishioners, ''May God bless you,'' one protester responded, ''And may he not [bless] you, mafioso.''

''It was a rejection of the mafia-like conduct of church hierarchy,'' Lociuro said. ''We are in a state of alert.''

The priests and notary public face a maximum 12 years' incarceration if found guilty. The archdiocese declined to comment, and Cappello did not return phone calls.

''There's nothing to say,'' the Rev. Nilo Guardamagna said from behind the doors of the archdiocese's offices. He said Storni is scheduled to return later this month.

Not long after Storni became archbishop in 1984, this conservative city of 500,000 was aswirl in rumors. At the Vatican's request, an archbishop from the western Province of Mendoza investigated Storni in 1994 on sexual abuse allegations, Santa Fe authorities say. The findings were not made public.

Guntern said that in 1992 he wrote a letter to Storni accusing him of having had a ''grave fall'' connected to contact with seminary students.

The Mendoza Archdiocese declined to discuss the investigation. ''We can't say anything; it's an order,'' said spokesman Edgardo Fretes. The Vatican Embassy in Buenos Aires also refused to comment.

Until last year Storni taught liturgy at Seminario de Nuestra Senora, three blocks from his archdiocesan home. The seminary houses students ages 15 to 25, a caretaker said.

After years of silence and secrecy on sexual abuse matters, judges and priests are now speaking out. Old letters critical of Storni have trickled into public view. One letter written by a priest, which was released last week and dated 1994, urged Storni to step down because his ''sickness'' could worsen. Santa Fe lawmakers passed a measure to denounce the treatment of Guntern and are pressing for their own investigation of Storni.

Wornat interviewed alleged victims who said they were forced to have sex with Storni. Boys ''age 15 or 16 had [sexual] relations with him,'' Wornat said. Alleged victims included the son of a Santa Fe judge.

''Nuestra Santa Madre'' is hailed as pioneer work on the power of the Catholic Church in Argentina. The book also explores the complicity between the church and the military dictatorship, which has been blamed in the killings of an estimated 30,000 people.

The Santa Fe Archdiocese, which includes 88 parishes in one of Argentina's richest provinces, is no less formidable. It has routinely kibitzed with the governor, whose offices are visible from the archbishop's corner windows overlooking Plaza de 25 de Mayo.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 9/15/2002.
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