MENDOZA, Argentina — Ezequiel Villalonga signs frantically with his hands to express the power he feels after years of suffering now that the priests whom he and other former students at an Argentine institute for the deaf accuse of abuse are finally going to trial.
Villalonga, 18, is one of about 20 ex-students of the Antonio Próvolo Institute for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Mendoza province who say they were sexually abused, including cases of rape, between 2004 and 2016. Their alleged abusers go on trial starting Monday in a case that Pope Francis, an Argentine, has not commented on publicly despite its closeness to his papacy.
The complaints at the institute came to light at the end of 2016 and created a scandal that deepened when it emerged that one of the accused, the Rev. Nicola Corradi, had been reported for similar allegations at the Antonio Próvolo institute in Verona, Italy, and that the pope had been notified that Corradi was running a similar center in Argentina.
"Those of us from the Próvolo in Mendoza said: 'no more fear. We have the power,'" Villalonga told The Associated Press with the help of an interpreter, explaining how others decided to come forward after an initial "brave" person did so.
The AP doesn't name alleged sexual assault victims unless they make their identities public, which Villalonga did in an interview in the headquarters of the human rights group Xumek, which is the plaintiff in the trial.
Alejandro Gullé, chief prosecutor in Mendoza, called the trial "unprecedented, one of the most important in this province, one whose importance will transcend this country."
On trial for aggravated sexual abuse of minors, sexual touching and corrupting minors will be: Corradi, an Italian who is 83 and under house arrest; the Rev. Horacio Corbacho, a 59-year-old priest; and Armando Gómez, 63. The latter two are Argentines and in prison in Mendoza. Corbacho has pleaded not guilty and the other two defendants have not entered pleas.
They are charged with 28 alleged crimes against 10 deaf minors and face prison sentences of up to 20 years. It is the first in a series of trials in which other former members of the now-closed school will be judged. 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.
Prosecutors say that not only were children sexually touched and abused, but were sometimes forced to watch pornography or perform sex acts among themselves.
Jorge Bordón, an institute employee, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 in the case for rape, sexual touching and corrupting minors by forcing children to perform sex acts on each other. But the former students at the Mendoza school believe they can achieve the first prison sentences for priests and clergy at the Roman Catholic institute, which has other branches. They are also demanding Francis strip the alleged abusers of their status as priests in the canonical process.
"Francis was very quiet about the abusive priests, but now the sentence is coming," said Villalonga. "I know that the pope is afraid because the deaf have been brave."
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 hits close to home for 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, Italy. 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.
"Two and a half years have passed (since the Mendoza case was uncovered) and Francisco has not uttered a single word to the survivors of the Próvolo in Mendoza," Paola González, whose 16-year-old daughter was an alleged victim at the institute.
According to the investigation, the alleged abusers especially targeted children who spent the night in the institute's shelters, some of whom came from surrounding provinces.
Prosecutor Gustavo Stroppiana said one victim claimed to have been "tied with chains" while abused.
"We found prophylactics and birth control pills" in raids carried on the Próvolo institute in Mendoza, he said.
The crimes allegedly took place in the dormitories of the two priests and of the children, in a loft and in a small chapel called the House of God where the children took first communion.
The children, with limited financial resources, didn't dare report the abuse because they were threatened with expulsion or the imprisonment of their parents, prosecutors said. Their communication skills were limited because they were not taught sign language at the school.
Authorities in Buenos Aires province recently ordered the arrest of Corradi for alleged abuses in the Próvolo Institute in La Plata, a city about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from the capital, Buenos Aires. It is believed the Italian priest went to that center in the 1980s after he was transferred from Verona before heading to Mendoza in the 1990s.
The accusers' relatives say the transfers of Corradi would follow the church practice at the time of moving accused priests around the world to different parishes and locations.
Many Argentines are wondering why Francis did not remove Corradi from the Mendoza institute after being warned about the allegations against him in Verona.
Corradi's name appeared publicly in 2009 when 67 deaf people said they had been abused in the Verona institute by 24 priests, lay workers and religious brothers. They said he had been moved to Argentina. The Italian priest's name appeared again in a letter addressed to the pope in 2014 that pointed out the potential danger he represented to minors.
The Verona diocese sanctioned four of the 24 defendants, but not Corradi. There was no criminal case because of the elapsed time.
Faced with criticism by the families of the Argentine victims, the Archbishopric of Mendoza said it didn't know the background of the Italian priest when he arrived in the province and that the priest didn't depend on the local church but on a religious congregation based in Italy. It expressed its "solidarity and closeness" with the accusers and considered that "the corresponding responsibilities and sanctions" should be established.
Anne Barret Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, told the AP that she does not expect a response from the Vatican and the pope.
"Pope Francis will continue to pretend that he has no responsibility for the atrocities in Mendoza. If he does respond, it will be a pro forma statement about his commitment to ending child sex abuse in the Church."
She added 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."
Villalonga said he hopes a conviction will restore his calm.
"The pope has ignored us, taken us the deaf for fools," he said.