By Liam Higgins
Father César Cordero Moscoso is easily Cuenca’s best-known Catholic priest and one of the best-recognized and most decorated in all of Latin America.
He was born into one of Cuenca’s most prominent families, his father the city’s best-known attorney in the early 20th century. His grandfather was president of Ecuador and, later, its poet laureate. Current Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera is a relative.
He 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 is fluent in five languages. Among his many honors are grants of citizenship in Italy and Moldova and residency in the U.S. state of Arkansas.
Father Cordero is also a sexual predator who molested dozens, maybe hundreds, of small boys and some small girls, according to accusers who are coming forward after decades of silence.
On Tuesday, workmen removed Cordero’s larger-than-life statue from the campus of Catholic University, where he held the title of “rector for life.” Earlier in the day, hundreds marched through the streets of the historic district demanding justice for the priest’s victims.
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 the founder of Cuenca’s 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 the Tuesday morning Radio Tomebamba call-in show. “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.”
Beginning last year, charges of sexual predation against Cordero were taken seriously for the first time. Others complaints had been made to church officials beginning in the late 1950s, but were ignored.
To date, five formal charges of rape have been filed with the prosecutor’s office and the Archdiocese of Cuenca against Cordero. All the alleged victims are men in their 60s and say the rapes occurred when they were children.
One of the complainants says Cordero raped him when he was seven. “He asked my mother for permission to teach me catechism and took me to his office,” he said. “He sat me on his legs, he began to kiss me and he raped me. I was very scared.”
In addition to the five formal cases, dozens of other Cuencanos who do not want to disclose their names have come to police and church officials to tell of sexual abuse by Cordero, including several women who say they were sodomized as children. Many of those with stories say the rapes occurred over a 20 or 30 year period, until the early 1980s. Some say they complained to the church at the time of the abuse but were turned away with ridicule and sometimes threats.
Both the prosecutor and Catholic church officials say that full investigations are currently underway. Both promise justice but say the investigation must be thorough and fair and don’t provide dates when decisions will be announced. The church investigation is being conducted by the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Santiago de Chile, based on a 2010 Vatican rule that outsiders must conduct inquiries into charges of sexual abuse by priests.
“I am glad the church is investigating,” says Jorge Palacios, one of Cordero’s accusers who does not mind being identified. “In the end, however, this is a law enforcement case because crimes have been committed. This terrible man, this sexual monster, should pay for his crimes and all the world should know about them.”
Palacios adds: “My message to Father Cordero and to the people of Cuenca is that I have survived this brutality. I did not let him destroy me as he has others. Now, all I ask is justice before the law and before God.”
According to his family, Cordero, who is 92 and bedridden, understands the charges against him and is willing to tell his story if asked.