Downcast and sitting in a wheelchair as his historic trial began Monday in Argentina, the Rev. Nicola Corradi didn't look like the man former students at an institute for the deaf say was the force behind years of “indescribable” torment through alleged sexual abuse.
The 83-year-old Italian priest, along with the Rev. Horacio Corbacho, 59, and Armando Gomez, 63, are being tried for 28 cases of alleged abuse against ex-students at the Antonio Provolo Institute for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Mendoza province. They face prison sentences of up to 20 years in some cases, up to 50 years in others.
The alleged abuse took place between 2004 and 2016, and the case gained world attention when it emerged that Corradi had faced similar accusations at the Antonio Provolo institute in Verona, Italy, and Pope Francis had been notified the Italian priest was running a similar center in Argentina.
Corradi has pleaded not guilty to the sexual abuse charges, while Corbacho and Gomez — both Argentines — have not entered pleas. The trial is expected to last more than a month.
As the three accused — Corbacho and Gomez in handcuffs — were led down a long corridor in Mendoza's Palace of Justice Monday to a court where three judges awaited them, alleged victims and their relatives protested outside, with one sign saying “With Our Hands And Our Voices We Break The Silence,” a reference to sign language.
“I am super-nervous, anxious and I hope for justice; that this ends soon so my son can move on to a new stage because this is very hard,” said Natalia Villalonga, whose 18-year-old son Ezequiel is one of about 20 ex-students at the Provolo institute who say they were abused.
The AP doesn't name alleged sexual assault victims unless they make their identities public, which Ezequiel Villalonga did in an interview on the eve of the trial in the headquarters of the human rights group Xumek, which is the plaintiff in the trial.
“Those of us from the Provolo in Mendoza say: `no more fear. We have the power,”' he said.
The first day's hearing lasted about two hours during which the charges against the men were read. They included rape, sexual touching and corrupting minors since the children were allegedly sometimes forced to watch pornography or perform sex acts among themselves.
It is the first in a series of trials involving other former members of the now-closed school. Others implicated include two nuns who allegedly participated or knew about the abuses, as well as former directors and employees who are accused of knowing about the abuse but taking no action.
Jorge Bordon, an institute employee, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 in the case for rape, sexual touching and corrupting minors.
The Vatican has not commented publicly on the trial. The Holy See would be loath to be seen as interfering in a criminal trial, and typically defers all comment, as well as the outcome of its own investigations, until after all investigations by civil law enforcement are completed.
In 2017, it sent two Argentine priests to investigate what happened in Mendoza. Dante Simon, a judicial vicar, told the AP that the acts denounced are “horrible” and “more than plausible.” He said the pontiff expressed his sadness and told him that “he was very worried about this situation and it would be a labor.”
In a report submitted to the Vatican in June of that year, Simon requested the application of the maximum penalty to Corradi and Corbacho, that they be made to “resign directly by the Holy Father.” The report must be reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The case touches close to the Vatican, which is accused of having disregarded the warnings of the alleged Italian victims of Corradi, when just months earlier the pope had promulgated new rules to combat abuse in the church.
Corradi was singled out for similar abuses committed since the 1950s at the Provolo institute in Verona. His name appeared in a letter addressed to the pope in 2014 in which the Italian accusers mentioned several allegedly abusive priests who continued to exercise the ministry and said that Corradi and three other priests were in Argentina.
The Verona diocese sanctioned four of the 24 defendants, but not Corradi. There was no criminal case because of the elapsed time.
Anne Barret Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, told the AP that she does not expect a response from the Vatican and the pope.
Doyle said that when the crimes at the Verona school made world headlines in 2009 and 2010, “the pope was president of the Argentine bishops' conference. He could have ordered an investigation of the Mendoza and La Plata schools then.”
“And certainly, as pope, he could have acted years ago. He was notified by the Verona victims of Corradi's presence in Argentina.”
Erica, the sister of a plaintiff who asked that her full name not be used, said the trial “gives me a lot of strength, because it could have never happened” because of the vulnerability of the children, who are poor and deaf or hard of hearing.
“I want to tell her that her word, which has been blocked by many social things, has a lot of value today. So much value that it could bring to justice people who were doing disastrous things for a long time,” she said.