Bolivian Catholic priest accused of abusing seminary students

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A Bolivian priest has been detained on suspicion of abusing seminary students a decade ago in a case that emerged after news broke earlier this month of a pedophilia scandal involving a late Jesuit priest in the Andean country.

Milton Murillo, a Catholic parish priest at the Church of San Roque in the southern region of Tarija, was sent to pre-trial detention for three months during a hearing late Thursday, regional prosecutor Sandra Gutiérrez Salazar said.

“With this, we want to express that the Public Prosecutor’s Office is taking stern action to ensure these crimes are punished,” she told reporters Friday.

The Murillo case came to a head in part because of the scandal that erupted earlier this month over Spanish Jesuit Alfonso Pedrajas. Pedrajas died of cancer in 2009 and left behind a personal diary in which he confessed to having abused around 85 minors in Bolivia during the 1970s and 1980s in Catholic boarding schools, as reported by the Spanish newspaper El País.

The Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus have asked for forgiveness and pledged to support any investigations that emerge from the Pedrajas case.

Prosecutors called on victims of Pedrajas and other priests to testify as authorities also investigate whether there was any cover-up. Although there had already been allegations of abuse by Murillo, new testimony by alleged victims helped lead to his detention.

The Bolivian government said this week it will create a Truth Commission to investigate allegations of sexual abuse against children and said it will push for a law that would get rid of statute of limitations for these types of crimes.

“This horror cannot be repeated; these crimes, whether committed by priests or anyone else, cannot be subject to statutes of limitation,” said María Nela Prada, the minister of the Bolivian presidency.

A small group of people gathered outside the archbishop's palace in downtown La Paz to demand justice for the allegations of sexual abuse by Church authorities.

“We're devastated," Alejandra Casas said while protesting Friday. "We know the Catholic Church is covering up cases.”

Although there have been several allegations of pedophilia involving priests in the Andean nation, human rights organizations say that, until now, few have been properly investigated.

Child Rights International Network, one of the organizations that has worked extensively on cases of pedophilia involving religious authorities, stated in a 2019 report that only three cases had resulted in convictions, including that of a priest who was sentenced for abusing 30 children in a poor rural town in the central region of Cochabamba.