Cuenca’s most decorated Catholic priest, accused of being a ‘sexual monster’, is dead at 95
By Liam Higgins
Father César Cordero of Cuenca died Saturday morning at age 95. Easily the best-known Catholic priest in Ecuador and one of the most decorated in Latin America, he was accused in 2010 of being a “sexual monster” who raped and abused more than 50 boys and was subsequently defrocked by the Vatican.
Born into one of Cuenca’s most prominent families, Cordero’s father was the city’s most successful attorney in the early 20th century. His grandfather was president of Ecuador and later, its poet laureate.
Cordero is the founder of the Catholic University of Cuenca and more than a dozen primary and high schools throughout Ecuador. He is also credited with establishing hospitals, clinics, religious radio and television stations and several Catholic charities. He earned PhDs in Lima and Paris and did post-doctoral work in the U.S. In addition to Spanish, he was fluent in five languages. Among his many honors were grants of citizenship in Italy and Moldova and residency in the U.S. state of Arkansas.
On at least three occasions, Cordero was a guest of the Vatican, holding what he called “long and meaningful” conversations with Pope John Paul II. The Pope visited Cuenca in 1985 at Cordero’s invitation, speaking to a record crowd of 10,000 in the cathedral.
Cordero was publicly accused of the rape of children in 2010 by Jorge Palacios, a 55-year-old man who claimed to have been raped repeatedly by the priest from the ages of five to 14. Although Palacios filed charges with the prosecutor’s office, there was no official investigation until 2018 when eight more men also accused the priest of rape. An investigation by the Vatican concluded that Cordero probably molested “dozens of young men and several girls” during his time in the priesthood. He was relieved of his duties in 2019.
Following the 2018 accusations, hundreds of protesters marched through Cuenca’s historic district demanding Cordero’s arrest. Protesters included the families of men allegedly abused by Cordero who said their complaints were “swept under the rug” years ago.
Some of the marchers handed out cards picturing Cordero holding the replica of Cuenca’s Divino Niño of Pase del Niño fame, the priest’s hand pushed inside the niño’s clothing. Cordero is one of the founders of the Pase del Niño Christmas Eve parade and celebration.
“This is the biggest scandal in Cuenca’s history and one of the most horrible, one of the most painful,” said a man named Gustavo on a Radio Tomebamba call-in show in April 2018. “People have known about these things for 50 years but no one had the courage to come forward to tell the truth, until now. He was so powerful people were scared. The other priests threatened parents who wanted to go public, even with violence.”
In May 2018, workmen removed Cordero’s larger-than-life statue from the campus of Catholic University, where he held the title of “rector for life.”
Despite an investigation by prosecutors that found “abundant” evidence of sexual abuse, Cordero was never formerly charged. Former employees in the prosecutor’s office say the investigation was never officially closed due to “overwhelming pressure” from the Cuenca Diocese. Others said charges were deferred due to the priest’s declining health.