by Dom Phillips
In the small Brazilian city of Arapiraca, tucked away in the poor, conservative northeast corner of the country, a hidden-camera video showing an octogenarian priest having sex with a young altar boy is being hawked on the street. For $5 to $10, vendors here will sell you the video, downloading it directly into your cellphone via Bluetooth. The price depends on the quality and length of the footage. According to one street vendor, the most popular download is the “complete” version. Buyers, he says, are “almost everybody—not just the curious.”
Even as the Catholic Church reels from abuse accusations that go straight to the pope, the incidents in Arapiraca are developing into a full-blown disaster that will land it near the top of the Vatican’s growing stack of crises. The sex tape is part of a scandal enveloping three of the city’s most venerated priests, and its release has led to threats, blackmail allegations, and counterattacks from the local church. In a place like Brazil—a country obsessed with sex, religion, and overwrought soap operas—one would expect nothing less than the bizarre narrative currently unfolding.
Asked if he had ever abused an altar boy, the priest responded, “I can’t tell you this. I can only tell my confessor any sin of mine. I don’t need to admit or deny.”
The accusations, exposed on the TV show Conexão Repórter (Reporter Connection) last month, are deeply damaging. A reporter interviewed three altar boys who alleged years of abuse at the hands of three Catholic priests. With his face hidden, one of those altar boys, now identified as Fabiano Silva Ferreira, alleged that a priest named Monsignor Luiz Marques Barbosa has abused him for years. Police say Barbosa’s abuse began when Fabiano was 12.
“He was hugging me, stroking me, kissing me,” Fabiano said of Barbosa, who is now 83. He claimed that Barbosa told him, “I love you, I really like you… I want you forever,” and that the priest would attempt to grope him during Mass, warning him, “Don’t tell anybody… This is something between me and you.”
Fabiano is the boy who appears in the sex tape that is being trafficked through the streets of Arapiraca. On the tape, he performs a sex act on Monsignor Barbosa, whose face is clearly visible. The tape was secretly shot by another altar boy, Cícero Flávio Vieira Barbosa (no relation to the priest), who also alleges years of abuse at the hands of Monsignor Barbosa, also beginning when he was 12. Asked why he shot the film, Flávio said, “Because there has to be a good end to this story. I was already his victim. And it brought a lot of fear to do something… I wanted proof.”
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The case is front-page news in Brazil, and has sent shockwaves shuddering through what is still a very Catholic country. Meanwhile, incendiary commentary is spreading like wildfire across Brazil’s garrulous blogosphere. “This is the demon in the middle of the Church of Our Lord,” reads one blog comment about Barbosa, written in Portuguese.
“They are already condemned for being pastors of God and to do something like this is shameful and nauseating for us who are Catholics.”
When the interviewer on Reporter Connection asked Barbosa if, in his 58 years in the priesthood, he had ever abused an altar boy, the priest responded, “I can’t tell you this. I can only tell my confessor any sin of mine. I don’t need to admit or deny.”
The two other well-known priests accused of abuse are Father Raimundo Gomes and Father Edílson Duarte. Brazil’s Civil Police agency has begun an inquiry into the charges against all three priests. The local diocese has suspended the trio. And the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission into Pedophilia, which is being conducted by Brazil’s senate, showed the sex video to a shocked audience in the city in April. Monsignor Barbosa, stony-faced, sat watching. He told the inquiry that this was the only time he had had sex with the altar boy.
The priests are fighting back—and thickening the plot. A lawyer for Barbosa says the altar boys, Flávio and Fabiano, attempted to extort about 5 million reals (US$2.8 million) from his client. Reporter Connection showed a copy of a document signed by Barbosa and the altar boys in June 2009 in which the boys agreed to destroy the video in return for a payment of R$32,000 (US$18,000). Fabiano says money was paid, but that he kept a copy of the tape. According to police, both boys ultimately received just R$500 each. “They received the money but not the total,” lead investigator Angelita Sousa told The Daily Beast. “The rest went to other places.” She would not elaborate.
Brazil is a paradox: a deeply conservative country with a pragmatic and open attitude toward sex. Love motels, where one can rent a room by the hour, line every city’s major highways. Romance and lust are the main themes in every soap opera. In a recent survey, 82 percent of Brazilians said they were confident that they know how to have a happy sex life. Casual sex doubled between 2004 and 2008, another survey reported.
Yet homosexuality remains an awkward subject here. Many gay couples never come out to their parents. “Bicha,” or “bitch,” is slang for a gay man, and is used as a popular insult. Gay-bashing is common. And yet the winner of the latest season of the reality-TV show Big Brother was forced to backtrack on homophobic comments he made about the show’s gay contestants. When it comes to gay issues, Brazil seems awkwardly wedged between the past and the present.
This awkwardness has been made crystal clear as the sex-abuse case unfolds. The local bishop, Dom Valério Breda, told Brazil’s biggest broadsheet that the sex tape wasn’t all that shocking because it simply showed consensual sex between two adults. (Fabiano was 18 when the video was shot in January 2009; Barbosa was in his eighties.) “It was a homosexual act, because the actors of that scene were of age,” the bishop insisted. He went on to tell the paper that he, too, had been subject to a blackmail attempt of R$1 million, and that he had known about the video’s existence for a year but had not alerted his community because the information was “nebulous.”
Other bombshells dropped during the three days the senate inquiry took place in Arapiraca. Father Duarte admitted he had sexually abused both Flávio and Fabiano, but suggested his victims were wrong to come forward. “I regret that these accusations have come from people who ate at my table,” he intoned. “Just as Jesus said: ‘Those who ate my bread are those who betray me.’”
And the third accused priest, Father Gomes, denied that any abuse took place at all, insisting he was victim of “revenge,” and accused a third altar boy, Anderson Farias Silva, of attempting to extort money from him. Silva said that Father Gomes had abused him since he was 14.
Furthermore, because Father Duarte is cooperating with the investigation, Brazilian police say he fears for his safety. “He asked for protection during the [senate inquiry] because he had denounced the others and he was scared,” says Officer Sousa. Father Duarte also said he believes Father Gomes to be “dangerous.”
The case has forced Brazil to confront the same issues that much of the Catholic world is now facing. “Brazil will no longer tolerate more abuse against children and adolescents,” concluded Senator Magno Malta, president of the senate inquiry. “What was seen in these three days (of inquiry) was a mosaic of hate, shame, and disgust.” Both the police and the senate inquiries continue, and Brazilian police tell The Daily Beast that theirs is nearly complete. “Probably in the first week of May we will be delivering our investigation to the judiciary,” said Officer Sousa.
This week, following the pope’s lead, the local bishop, Dom Valério Breda, sent a letter to his flock asking for forgiveness. “We feel, yes, shame and dishonor at the violation of the dignity of the human person and we regret the blow delivered to the church,” he wrote.
He said he had talked to Monsignor Barbosa, but that the two men did not discuss the abuse allegations directly. “He is a certain age and I didn’t want to treat him like any boy,” said the bishop. Instead, he said Monsignor Barbosa used a Latin phrase from the Psalms of David: “Peccatum meum ante me est semper.” Or, “My sin is always in front of me.”
In many ways, the scandal rocking Arapiraca feels like a backwater version of the Catholic Church’s larger crisis, its secrets and lies even darker, its coverups even more inept. Priests accusing the alleged victims of blackmail, using Latin psalms to talk around child-abuse charges, and defending the incidents as sex between consenting adults (even though gay sex is forbidden by the Catholic Church.) No wonder this institution is flailing on the ropes.
As for the alleged victims, they appear to be struggling to reconcile their faith with what’s happened to them.
“I believe a lot in God,” Fabiano told Reporter Connection. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe in any church anymore.”
British journalist Dom Phillips moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2007 to write his book Superstar DJs Here We Go (Random House/Ebury 2009) and works as a correspondent covering news, economics, and celebrity. He now writes for The Times, People, Financial Times, Observer, and Grazia.