Bolivia church abuse case sparks wave of complaints, investigation

By Monica Machicao

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivian authorities are investigating whether any Catholic Church officials in the country should be held accountable following the publication of a diary of a late Jesuit priest that contained multiple confessions of child abuse.

The case has triggered complaints from former students about other abuse in religious-run schools in Bolivia, including those of Jesuits, but also Dominicans, Franciscans, and other orders.

The revelations, first published by Spanish newspaper El Pais in April, documented abuse by Alfonso Pedrajas, known as Father Pica, a Spanish priest who lived for years in Bolivia where he ran schools for marginalized communities.

After his death in 2009, his nephew found a 300-page diary on his computer where Pedrajas confessed to the sexual abuse of dozens of minors around the 1970s, according to El Pais.

In the diary, Pedrajas wrote that he had spoken to superiors about what he had done but they did nothing about it.

Bolivia's attorney general is investigating the case and looking at whether any Church officials should be held responsible.

Since the diary was published, some 200 people in Bolivia have come forward to say they were abused by Pedrajas or other priests, with protests held outside Jesuit offices.

Prosecutors have raided some schools and Jesuit buildings as part of preliminary investigations into the accusations and detained two priests.

"I ask only for justice, so aggressive and abominable acts against the defenseless are never repeated," Carlos, 52, who said he was abused by Pedrajas when he was a student at the Juan XXIII school in Cochabamba, told Reuters.

"I am willing to risk everything. Some people ask: 'why now?' I tell them that their questions hurt, they are meaningless because they don't know the ordeal we experienced."

Bernardo Mercado, a Bolivian Jesuit who spoke for the order, said the body was seeking clarification about the complaints and was cooperating with authorities.

"I have absolutely no reason to obstruct the investigation and I fully trust the attorney general," he said.

Ricardo Centellas, Vice President of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, said the Church was willing to cooperate in any investigation.

"Let's wait for the results, to find out what the crimes are so those responsible receive the corresponding sentence," he said.

On Friday, Bolivia's government said it would in future demand background checks from the Vatican for any religious envoys coming on a mission to the country.

At one of the protests, activist America Maceda said it was important that both individuals and institutions be held responsible.

"We demand justice for the victims. Not only against those who commit these acts, but also against those who systematically cover them up," she said.

(Reporting by Monica Machicao; Writing by Daniel Ramos; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)