Abuse victims want Pope Francis to open Argentina files

A Roman Catholic activist group says Pope Francis was slow as head of the Argentine church to act against sexual abuse by clergy and urged him to apologize for what it called church protection for two priests later convicted of sexually assaulting children.

Activist group claims new pope slow to react to sexual abuse by clergy in home country

In this image made from video provided by CTV, Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural mass with cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican March 14.. (Associated Press)

A Roman Catholic activist group says Pope Francis was slow as head of the Argentine church to act against sexual abuse by clergy and urged him to apologize for what it called church protection for two priests later convicted of sexually assaulting children.

A lawyer for some of the victims, meanwhile, said when the new pope was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he did not meet with or help victims, and charged that mid-level church officials who covered up the problem haven't lost their jobs.

The office of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires didn't immediately comment on the complaints, which came Tuesday as Francis was being installed as pope in a Vatican ceremony seen around the world.

Argentine Catholic priest Julio Grassi talks to reporters after being found guilty of sexual abuse in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Rolando Andrade Stracuzzi/Associated Press)

The U.S.-based Bishop Accountability group cited the cases of two priests: Father Julio Cesar Grassi, who ran the Happy Children foundation and was convicted of pedophilia in 2008; and Father Napoleon Sasso, convicted in 2007 of abusing girls at a soup kitchen in suburban Buenos Aires, where he was assigned after being accused of pedophilia elsewhere.

Grassi is currently free pending appeal, due partly to a court filing on his behalf by the Argentine Roman Catholic Church, which was headed by Francis while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Francis oversaw Argentina's bishops conference when Sasso was assigned to the soup kitchen at a chapel, said Ernesto Moreau, attorney for the victims.

Bishop Accountability co-director Anne Doyle said Francis was behind the curve in the Catholic Church's global struggle to deal with sex abuse by its priests, which erupted in 2002 after thousands of cases became public in the United States and around the world.

"We would be alarmed if [Pope Francis] had done this in the '60s or '70s. That would be sad and disturbing," Doyle told The Associated Press. "But the fact that he did this just five years ago, when other bishops in other countries were meeting victims and implementing tough reporting laws, it puts him behind some of his American counterparts, that's for sure."

The group said that to send a message of zero tolerance for sexual abuse in the church, the new pope should tell the Buenos Aires archdiocese to release the complete files on the Grassi and Sasso cases, publicly identify any other priests who are "credibly accused" of sex abuse and endorse mandatory reporting by church officials to law enforcement of suspected abuse.

Francis should admit that he was wrong to defend abusive priests, apologize to the victims of Grassi and Sasso, and offer to meet with them, the group said.

Noting the Pope's coronation, Doyle said: "The victims of these two priests are the very children of God about whom he was speaking in his homily today. They are the most vulnerable of the poor. We hope that Francis will seize this as a priority and reach out to the victims and rectify his terrible insensitivity to them when he was archbishop."

No evidence Francis covered up

No one has presented evidence that Francis was directly involved in covering up sex abuse.

At the Vatican, Francis will be ultimately responsible for the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which last year told the church's bishops conferences around the globe to draw up comprehensive guidelines to deal with sexually abusive clergy. It gave the bishops a year to draft guidelines to better screen priests, root out potential abusers, educate laity about the problem, and require bishops to report suspected abuse to civil authorities where civil reporting laws exist.

The Pope's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, told the AP before Francis was elected pope last week that he had drawn an increasingly tough line on clergy abuse. Francis insisted that accused priests face trial, and imposed a thorough screening process in an attempt to weed out future problems, Rubin said.

But Bishop Accountability said the cases of Grassi and Sasso show that Francis and the Catholic Church were slow to recognize the problem in Argentina and act against it.

Grassi was well known in Buenos Aires for persuading celebrities to donate to his Happy Children foundation, which ran orphanages and social outreach programs. Before he was convicted of abusing a child, Grassi praised Francis for "never abandoning him." 

Sasso was assigned to the soup kitchen, which was at a chapel where his bedroom shared the only bathroom, after living in a home for wayward priests where he had been sent after accusations of pedophilia were raised against him in the remote San Juan province.

"The bathroom had two doors. The girls would come in through the outside door, and the priest would bring them into his bedroom through the other, sexually abusing the girls," Moreau said. "These were really poor people, who were there for free meals while their parents worked. They found an enormous amount of child pornography in his computer ..."

It was a medical priest and a nun who discovered that Sasso had abused 25 girls aged three to 16, but when they informed church officials, they were told to "remain patient," and nothing was done, Moreau said.

Eventually, they sought out higher authorities and the case was taken up by the criminal courts, but the mid-level church officials who covered up are still in their posts, while the priest and nun were forced to work elsewhere, the lawyer said.

Sasso later became a fugitive and hid out for a year inside a church property in the same diocese where the abuse occurred, Moreau said.

Sasso now gets one-day monthly furloughs from prison after serving half of a 17-year sentence for abusing five girls.