Pope Francis’ role in Argentina’s most famous case of priestly sex abuse is coming under renewed scrutiny as he faces the greatest crisis of his papacy over the Catholic Church’s troubled legacy of cover-up and allegations he himself sided with the accused.
Francis, who at the time was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in 2010 commissioned a four-volume, 2,000-plus page forensic study of the legal case against a convicted priest that concluded he was innocent, that his victims were lying and that the case never should have gone to trial.
The Argentinian church says that the study obtained by The Associated Press, bound volumes complete with reproductions of Johannes Vermeer paintings on the covers, was for internal church use only.
But the volumes purportedly ended up on the desks of some Argentine court justices who were ruling on the appeals of Father Julio Grassi.
Despite the study, Argentina’s Supreme Court in March 2017 upheld the conviction and 15-year prison sentence against Grassi, a celebrity priest who ran homes for street children across Argentina.
The study, and Francis’ role in the Grassi case, have taken on new relevance following allegations by a former Vatican ambassador that Francis, and a long line of Vatican officials before him, covered up the sexual misconduct of a prominent US cardinal.
Neither Francis nor the Vatican has responded to the allegations that Francis rehabilitated ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from sanctions in 2013.
The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment about Francis’ role in the Grassi case.
In an exclusive interview with AP, Grassi’s victim, Gabriel, said he is still waiting for Francis to acknowledge his pain, given the Supreme Court has now ruled that he indeed was assaulted by Grassi when he was 13.
“I’d like for the church to say something, even though I don’t expect it will,” Gabriel said.
“No one ever reached out to me,” he said. “No one bothered.”
Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, was not Grassi’s bishop and bore no direct responsibility for him.
But in 2006, he was quoted by the now-defunct Argentinian magazine Veintitres as saying the accusations against Grassi were “informative viciousness against him, a condemnation by the media”.
He said he would withhold judgment pending the outcome of the court case, but Grassi himself gave evidence that Cardinal Bergoglio had “never let go of my hand” throughout the legal process.
Under Cardinal Bergoglio’s presidency, Argentina’s bishops conference in 2010 enlisted a leading Argentine criminal defence lawyer, Marcelo Sancinetti, to research a counter-inquiry into the prosecutors’ case against Gabriel and two other former residents of Grassi’s Happy Children homes whose cases were thrown out in the initial trial.
In the study, Mr Sancinetti concluded that not only were not the accusations against Grassi sufficiently proven, “the falsity of each one of the accusations is objectively verifiable”.
In the four tomes, which were produced at an annual clip from 2010-2013, Mr Sancinetti accused Gabriel of changing his story and trying to extort Grassi.
But a court years earlier had already thrown out a criminal complaint filed by Grassi accusing Gabriel of extortion.
Mr Sancinetti compared the “current trials and condemnations with severe sentences based exclusively on the word of a person who calls itself victim of sexual abuse to the trials for witchcraft of the Middle Ages”.
And in the final volume and on his law firm’s website, Mr Sancinetti said Francis in particular had commissioned the work.
Argentina’s Supreme Court disagreed with Mr Sancinetti’s analysis, and on March 21 2017, upheld Grassi’s 2009 conviction for having sexually abused and corrupted Gabriel.
Through tears, Gabriel had given evidence that on two separate occasions in 1996 the priest once fondled him, and then performed oral sex on him in his office.
Gabriel, who for a time was placed in Argentina’s witness protection program after suffering a break-in, physical attacks and threats, said he was shocked when Grassi testified that Cardinal Bergoglio “had never let go of my hand.”
“We were all like ‘wow!’ It was Bergoglio,” he said.
Gabriel said he and his lawyer delivered a letter addressed to Francis two months after he was elected Latin America’s first pope, bringing it to the Vatican embassy in Buenos Aires on May 8 2013.
In the letter, Gabriel identified himself as a victim of “aberrant crimes of repeated sexual abuse and corruption” by Grassi.
He lamented that court-protected details of his abuse had been exposed by the study, which he said had “denigrated” him personally and contradicted the stated “zero tolerance” policy of both Pope Benedict XVI and Francis.
“I suffered and continue to suffer,” he wrote.
He asked for an audience with the pope “and I earnestly beg you for compassion and help in recovering my faith.”