The more time passed, the more difficult it was to temper the great sorrow that gnawed at him. For nearly twenty years he had kept quiet about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. At times he couldn't string his ideas together, he felt like a hook stuck in his throat. He decided to study law, driven by the need for justice. In criminal law classes, José Leonardo Araujo Araque counted the time he had left to file a complaint before the statute of limitations expired, and then the professor's voice intermingled with his disturbing memories.
At the age of 13, José Leonardo dreamed of becoming a priest. She was in eighth grade at a school run by the Dominican Sisters in La Azulita, Venezuela. One day, he traveled to the city of Merida, three hours from his hometown. He entered the San Pablo bookstore and there he met the man who would later become his abuser: the priest Juan Arcadio Huerta Ibarra. A counselor and vocation promoter, he invited him to the house of formation. On the first occasions they met, Huerta was respectful. It was 2001.
Huerta Ibarra was born in El Arenal, State of Jalisco, Mexico. He landed as a Pauline priest in Mérida in 1997. There he founded the "Queen of the Apostles" community and became the superior. Present in 32 countries, the Society of St. Paul concentrates its resources on the editing and publication of books and magazines, evangelization and religious formation. Despite his 46 years of age and his clerical dress, Huerta was a jovial and charismatic guy. José Leonardo still has a printed photo that he gave him when he was ordained a priest: his mother appears giving him the blessing and he with his head bowed. He fervently longed for that achievement that had hitherto eluded him.
He started traveling every weekend to Merida. From Friday to Sunday he spent the night in the formation house, a country building, with a huge stone portal, stuccoed walls and Spanish gabled tiles. In a room with bunk beds slept other minors who also wanted to be priests. The first time, José Leonardo stayed in that room, but soon things would change. Huerta gave him gifts: flannels, medals, religious books, key chains. In an analogous photo with the typical blue background, José Leonardo appears beardless, with a sad look and a cross that Huerta had given him, hanging on his chest as a sign that he was an "aspirant" to enter the Society of St. Paul. "He made me feel privileged, protected," recalls José Leonardo. He gained so much trust from the family that they granted the boy permission, not only to travel to Merida, but to religious missions in other cities. "My parents would never have imagined that he would start abusing me," she says.
The first unusual situation arose when they went out to do some shopping. On the way home, as Huerta drove the car, he reached into José Leonardo's leg and groped him. He was stony with fright. Another day, they were watching a movie on TV with the other young men, and when it was time to go to bed, Huerta ordered José Leonardo to go with him to his room. He unfolded the duplex bed with a drawer and José Leonardo lay face down on the lower one. Suddenly, Huerta pulled him by the arm: "Come here, asshole." She forcibly kissed him, touched his genitals and rubbed against them, and gave him fellatio. José Leonardo was paralyzed, without strength, without a voice. I was afraid to run away. "I wasn't able to verbalize the situation with anyone, least of all my parents."
Jóse Leonardo Araujo, in Caracas, on October 12. Gaby Oraa
After abusing him, Huerta fell asleep and by four o'clock in the morning he was on his feet, took the rosary hanging at the head of the bed, put on his stole and prostrated himself on his knees. He prayed three times as much as usual with a camandula for 15 mysteries, instead of the usual five, and then celebrated Mass. That is one of the most shocking and contradictory images for José Leonardo. "After abusing me, he would get up the next day to pray Lauds as if nothing had happened," she recalls. In that house of formation, he saw Father Huerta abuse other children. "I kissed her on the lips, there was touching. I knew something wasn't right, but I couldn't pinpoint," she recalls. Due to his age, José Leonardo could not even be a candidate for vocational follow-up, since one of the minimum requirements was to be in the last grade of high school. "It was something concocted by him, because he knew perfectly well that a 13-year-old had no option to enter the religious community," he said.
For a long year, the sexual abuse was repeated every weekend. José Leonardo was on a dead end. "It was seeing the figure of the consecrated priest who had already been working on an idea in my mind: that what the superior said had to be followed, that he who obeys does not make mistakes," he concludes. The last abuse took place at Easter 2002, in the sacristy of a church. They had traveled to Chacantá on a religious mission. The episode of abuse was interrupted when a church worker passed by and saw them. Among the activities of Holy Week there was a penitential act in which the faithful confessed to Huerta. José Leonardo felt demoralized, dejected, and decided to confess as well.
"Please don't do that to me anymore," he said.
"What's that?" Huerta asked.
"That's what you do to me in bed."
"Are you sorry?"
Huerta ordered him to pray the act of contrition and absolved him of "his sins." José Leonardo confessed as if he were committing the crime. That's when the abuses stopped. He never set foot in that house again, but paradoxically, his beliefs were still intact. "The church was a way to sublimate pain," he says now 35. He wanted to follow the vocation of a priest, entered a seminary, but some time later he withdrew, disenchanted, and opted for law. When he graduated as a lawyer, he was recognized. As the audience applauded him, he cried. Huerta, on the other hand, was sent to Rome in 2002. He returned the following year to Venezuela, but to Caracas, where he remained until 2012, when he was transferred to the United States.
José Leonardo was so depressed that he got up at four or five in the afternoon. He preferred to sleep to forget about the world. I preferred to sleep so as not to think. In 2017, he began to have such severe depressions that he attempted suicide several times. In the psychotherapeutic process, she revealed the abuse she suffered. "I never talked about it before out of fear, I was ashamed," she says. He gathered his strength and made the decision that would change everything: to seek justice before the statute of limitations expired. "But the psychological times of the victim are not the same as the chronological times," explains José Leonardo, who is still on medication and under psychiatric monitoring. "These are violations of the dignity of the individual that leave wounds too deep to speak of a statute of limitations."
With determination, he confronted Huerta in 2018. He looked for his contact and wrote to him on WhatsApp: "We have a pending conversation about that event. It's time to talk about it," he said. "Yes, and it would be best face to face," he replied. In the messages, Huerta can be read who, although he does not directly admit the crime, does not refute José Leonardo's statements, nor denies the facts and, on the contrary, expresses his desire to save money to take him to the Virgin of Guadalupe and ask her forgiveness. "It was never my intention to harm you (...) Why didn't you ever tell me before, we would have worked on that together," said a cynical Huerta, who asks him for help to safeguard his priestly investiture and reach a reparation agreement. Through a law firm, they agreed that he would compensate him, but the priest did not comply.
The priest Juan Huerta Ibarra, in an image spread on social networks.
In March 2019, José Leonardo denounced him to the Archbishop of Mérida. Jesuit priest Arturo Peraza was appointed to lead the investigation. José Leonardo gave his testimony and presented text messages, photos, and psychological and psychiatric expert reports. Statements from other witnesses corroborated that the victim did frequent the place and that the descriptions corresponded to the place where the events had occurred. Months later, in a clear display of negligence, Peraza decided not to open a canonical process and shelved the "investigations." In a brief report, it concluded that the complainant had confused the dates, that the witnesses — current members of the congregation — never observed any unusual behavior on the part of Huerta, and that the psychological report was not evidence of the events narrated by Araujo but "evidence of the damages he has suffered."
Consulted by this newspaper, Peraza said that he had no intention "of concealment or interest" and denied that he had dismissed any evidence. "But the occurrence of an event requires, in addition to the word of the alleged affected person, other elements that show its possible occurrence," he said. Sexual abuse is a crime that usually takes place in private places and without direct witnesses, which does not invalidate the victim's testimony. "Where was he going to get more evidence if the abuse took place in a room?" asks José Leonardo.
That same year, he filed a criminal complaint with the ordinary justice system and addressed a letter to the Superior in Rome, another to the Archdiocese of Chicago, United States, where Huerta lived, and one more to Mexico. At first he got no answer. José Leonardo insisted that Rome give an answer, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then ordered that a disciplinary case be opened in the Primate Archdiocese of Mexico, where Huerta had been transferred.
The crime for which Huerta is accused in the Venezuelan penal system is called "sexual abuse of children with continuous penetration" and carries a penalty of up to 17 years in prison. The Control Court of Mérida requested that Father Huerta be questioned and presented to the authorities. José Leonardo sent the document to the congregation and begged for collaboration so that Huerta could be sent to Venezuela. The secretary of the Episcopate of Mexico seconded the request, but the provincial rejected it and Huerta remained there for three more years, with the complicity of the church and knowing that he had a criminal complaint in Venezuela. The Society of St. Paul, from Mexico, told EL PAÍS that, in the course of the canonical process, another victim appeared who preferred to remain anonymous "because he had already built a life."
With the same evidence presented by José Leonardo in Venezuela, where the priest Arturo Peraza dismissed the investigation, Father Huerta was found guilty in the canonical process held in Mexico in December 2021. Despite knowing that Huerta had an open criminal case in Venezuela, he was in the provincial house of the Paulines until May 2022, when he was finally expelled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in Rome. The Society of St. Paul told EL PAÍS that they do not know of Huerta's whereabouts. "Only Huerta Ibarra was stripped of his priestly status, without having been handed over to the judicial authorities, as even established by provisions established by Pope Francis himself," explained Cristina Sada Salinas, president of Spes Viva, a Mexican association that supported José Leonardo in the complaint.
José Leonardo has contacted other victims. Before being sent to Venezuela, in 1996 the priest had already abused another young man in Mexico. Moving priests who committed sexual abuse from one city was instituted as an accepted practice. "It was a geographical cure for the disease," says José Leonardo, now an agnostic.
The Merida State Control Court issued an international arrest warrant for Huerta Ibarra and Interpol issued a red notice, meaning he is wanted in 195 countries. He was last seen a few months ago at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. Huerta, now 68, sported a beard and black glasses.
Days ago, José Leonardo protested in Rome to demand zero tolerance for clerical abuse, an initiative led by the organization Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), a global network of abuse survivors, activists and human rights defenders. ECA is concerned that Huerta has escaped to the United States, given that Venezuela does not have an extradition treaty with that country. The organization has demanded that the Vatican State be held accountable before international justice. "There is a systematic cover-up by the Vatican State through delaying practices such as transferring priests who have committed an act of abuse to other countries so that they cannot be prosecuted," says Adalberto Méndez, a lawyer for ECA's board of directors. "They seek to prosecute under canon law and not under domestic law, and evidently the sanctions are not deprivation of liberty or compensation for the damage, but only of a spiritual nature."
Jóse Leonardo Araujo, during the interview with EL PAÍS. Gaby Oraa
Before the dicastery (court of justice) of Rome, José Leonardo filed a complaint against the superior priests who covered up for Huerta, delayed the process and contributed to his being a fugitive today. So far there has been no response. The church has not yet apologized to him.
"To put an end to this, the church has to put an end to the idealization of the priest, the Alter Christus. If the figure of the priest continues to be exalted, abuses will continue to occur because they are, in essence, abuses of power." While Huerta is being arrested, José Leonardo will file a civil lawsuit against the church. It will be the first time that they have faced an issue like this in Venezuela. He just wants to heal and for justice to be done. "It's one thing to pray, it's quite another to face the church," he says.