Priest in 'Children of Silence' adoption scam leaves Chile

Chilean priest yet to be charged after illegal adoptions
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Story highlights

  • Families caught in adoption scam frustrated as priest moved out of Chile
  • Priest admits arranging illegal adoptions, which mothers did not know about

Santiago, Chile (CNN)A priest at the center of an illegal baby adoption scam in Chile has been moved out of the country and faces no charges, even after admitting he participated in at least two illegal adoptions.

The Rev. Gerardo Joannon, who belongs to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts order, has been relocated to a house for priests in the city of Merlo, Argentina.
    The transfer is supposed to be "an act of religious obedience" and a time to pray and serve penance, according to a statement issued by the order. The statement does not give a reason for his penance.
    Joannon, who is in his late 70s, publicly admitted last year that he had facilitated illegal adoptions during the 1970s and '80s.
    According to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts order and Chilean authorities, the priest took at least two babies from their biological mothers, either through lies or coercion, and in secret gave them to adoptive families.
    Mario Carroza, a prosecutor who investigated the case, said upper-class families would approach Joannon after learning an unmarried daughter was pregnant. He said the priest would then conspire with doctors, nurses, nuns and others to deliver the baby, which would then be raised by the adoptive parents.
    "We're talking about crimes like kidnapping, of course, because the baby was taken from the mother without her consent or knowledge; falsification of identity, because the baby was made to appear as a biological child of a different couple, and falsification of documents," Carroza said.
    Carroza, though, has ruled the statute of limitations has run out, and that the priest could no longer be prosecuted, angering those still looking for biological parents and children.
    The ruling has also puzzled many Chileans who are also questioning the decision to send the priest to Argentina.
    CNN tried to get a more elaborate answer from the order, but an interview request was declined. At the house where the priest used to live, another priest hung up the intercom after being asked about Joannon.
    The leader of the order, the Rev. Alex Vigueras, was also not answering questions when he arrived at his home. He said "we're not giving any interviews" and quickly drove in and closed the gate.
    The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts order conducted an internal investigation last year into the allegations and sent its findings to the Vatican. The Holy See later determined that even though the priest had made ethical and moral mistakes, none of his actions had risen to the level of a violation of canon law.
    Carroza, the prosecutor who handled the case, said the investigation is still open and, as more cases surface, he is hoping there will be a case he can prosecute.
    Joannon's attorney, Eduardo Novoa, said the crimes his client is accused of were not even on the books until 1988.
    "My client, as priest, knew families and would approach them with the intention of giving them support and guidance when unexpected pregnancies occurred," he said.
    "In some cases, the grandparents or parents of a young, pregnant woman considered the pregnancy unacceptable and would seek to give the baby away so that another family would raise him as their child."
    Chilean authorities said Joannon is only one of many priests, nuns, doctors, nurses and others who conspired to carry out illegal adoptions during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.
    The number of stolen children, officials interviewed by CNN said, could be in the thousands. In Chile, they're known as the "Children of Silence."
    Gloria Cortés, 63, says she gave birth to a healthy baby on March 4, 1976, only to be told hours later the boy had died.
    "I gave birth to that baby and they yanked him away from my very arms," Cortés said. "How can there be such bad people in this world?"
    She was never shown a body or a death certificate. The hospital where she gave birth shut down years ago. Documents that could prove her story were lost over the years.
    Constanza del Río, 42, a Santiago graphic designer, is looking for her biological parents. Her adoptive parents told her they picked her up as a newborn in a Santiago clinic. The Carolina Freire Clinic shut down many years ago and the building is abandoned and in ruins.
    Del Río said she feels like a part of her will be missing until she finds her biological mother and the truth about her past.
    "I don't want to change my name or change my family. I just want to know who she was and how this happened," del Río said.
    With the support of her husband, del Río launched a website last year to help connect the "Children of Silence" with their biological parents.
    But the process has been frustrating, del Río said. They're struggling for money to create a DNA database that would help the process of reconnecting families. They also feel the government is dragging its feet.
    They feel a successful prosecution against Joannon would have opened the door for other cases. The ruling against moving forward with the case was a big disappointment, they said.
    Some of those responsible for the adoptions, from doctors to priests and nurses, have died over the years.
    With Joannon now in Argentina, many of the families caught in the scandal fear they may never get justice or the truth about the children of silence.