LUJAN DE CUYO, Argentina — When investigators swept in and raided the religious Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf, they uncovered one of the worst cases yet among the global abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church: a place of silent torment where prosecutors say pedophiles preyed on the most isolated and submissive children.
The scope of the alleged abuse was vast. Charges are pending against 13 suspects; a 14th person pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, including rape, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The case of the accused ringleader — an octogenarian Italian priest named Nicola Corradi — is set to go before a judge next month.
Corradi was spiritual director of the school and had a decades-long career spanning two continents. And so his arrest in late 2016 raised an immediate question: Did the Catholic Church have any sense that he could be a danger to children?
The answer, according to a Washington Post investigation that included a review of court and church documents, private letters, and dozens of interviews in Argentina and Italy, is that church officials up to and including Pope Francis were warned repeatedly and directly about a group of alleged predators that included Corradi.
Yet they took no apparent action against him.
“I want Pope Francis to come here, I want him to explain how this happened, how they knew this and did nothing,” a 24-year-old alumna of the Provolo Institute said, using sign language as her hands shook in rage. She and her 22-year-old brother, who requested anonymity to share their experiences as minors, are among at least 14 former students who say they were victims of abuse at the now-shuttered boarding school in the shadow of the Andes.
Vulnerable to the extreme, the deaf students tended to come from poor families that fervently believed in the sanctity of the church. Prosecutors say the children were fondled, raped, sometimes tied up and, in one instance, forced to wear a diaper to hide the bleeding. All the while, their limited ability to communicate complicated their ability to tell others what was happening to them. Students at the school were smacked if they used sign language. One of the few hand gestures used by the priests, victims say, was an index figure to lips — a demand for silence.
“They were the perfect victims,” said Gustavo Stroppiana, the chief prosecutor in the case.
And yet they may not have been the first. Corradi, now 83 and under house arrest, is also under investigation for sexual crimes at a sister school in Argentina where he worked from 1970 to 1994. And alumni of a related school in Italy, where Corradi served earlier, identified him as being among a number of priests who carried out systematic abuse over five decades. The schools were all founded and staffed by priests from the Company of Mary for the Education of the Deaf, a small Catholic congregation that answers to the Vatican.
The Italian victims’ efforts to sound the alarm to church authorities began in 2008 and included mailing a list of accused priests to Francis in 2014 and physically handing him the list in 2015.
It was not the church, however, but Argentine law enforcement that cut off Corradi’s access to children when it shut down the Provolo school in Lujan. Argentine prosecutors say the church has not fully cooperated with their investigation.
As Francis prepares to host a historic bishops’ summit this week to address clerical sexual abuse, the lapses in the case — affecting the pope’s home country of Argentina and the home country of the Roman Catholic Church — illustrate the still-present failures of the church to fix a system that has allowed priests to continue to abuse children long after they were first accused.
Corradi’s lawyer declined multiple interview requests for this article and did not respond to emails seeking to speak with the priest. Attempts to reach Corradi through his family were unsuccessful. The Vatican declined to comment on a detailed list of questions.
But Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the abuse-tracking site BishopAccountability.org, said the Provolo case “is truly emblematic.”
“The church failed them abysmally. The pope ignored them, the police responded,” she said. “It’s a clear example of the tragedy that keeps playing out.”
As in Argentina, deaf students from the Provolo schools in Verona, Italy, kept their experiences of sexual abuse to themselves for years. But after they started opening up, they worked from bottom to top to inform the Catholic church, according to letters and other documents. They wrote to the local bishop in 2008. Soon after, they provided a list of accused priests and religious figures to the local diocese. By 2011, a list of names was with the Vatican. By 2015, a list was in the hands of the pope.
The rumblings started with Dario Laiti, a former student who came forward in 2006 after noticing a new children’s facility in the town and worrying that abuse might be happening there, as well.
“I was the first,” said Laiti, who for years had made excuses when his wife asked why he hadn’t wanted children.
Soon, more than a dozen other former students were telling their stories, using an improvised mix of sign language and limited speech. Their accounts ranged in time between the 1950s and 1980s. As adults, they had become woodcutters, delivery men, factory workers. Some were unemployed. Few had sustained relationships. One of their schoolmates had committed suicide.
One student, Alda Franchetto, said she had tried to confide in her parents years earlier — running away from the school as a 13-year-old in a burst of euphoria and explaining to them what was happening to her there. Her parents, she said, didn’t believe her and returned her to the institute.