Elders of a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Santa Elena opted for silence and secrecy in a trial that followed Matías Vargas and Luciano Vito Panza, two members of that religious congregation, accused of aggravated sexual abuse and corruption of minors to the detriment of two young people.
Originally published by EntreRíosYA on March 11, 2021
The case was opened in 2017, when an 18-year-old girl scribbled Vargas and Panza on Facebook. In her post she accused them of being child molesters.
In the second day of trial against the congregation members, which took place in La Paz, Argentina, they testified before the court of judges, Carolina Castagno, Gustavo Pimentel and Elvio Garzón. Also in attendance were seven people belonging to the Kingdom Hall of Santa Elena. The day began at 9 o’clock and ended around noon, as the defense ran out of witnesses.
During the day, three Elders, who hold the highest position within the Witnesses, avoided giving information and took refuge in Article No. 289 of the Entre Ríos Criminal Procedure Code. It permits them to refrain from declaring “secret” facts that the “ministers of an admitted religion” would know. The authorities who chose silence are Lucas Paunera, Pablo Pedernera and Aldo Córdoba.
The article to which they alluded, says verbatim that “they must abstain from declaring secret facts that have come to their attention due to their own state, trade or profession, under penalty of nullity, ministers of an admitted religion, lawyers, attorneys and notaries; doctors, pharmacists, midwives and other assistants of the art of healing; the military and public officials on state secrets”.
Burkhard: “their position was worse than the one they had in the investigation”
Lawyer Valeria Burkhard, who represents Belén Sánchez, one of the victims, regretted the position taken by the leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the northern town of Entre Ríos. “Their position was worse than they had in the preliminary investigation. They were more reluctant. And from the beginning they made it clear that what was confidential could not be disclosed,” she said.
“They tried to avoid answering the questions as directly as possible. When they had to answer yes or no, they immediately came up with the issue of confidentiality. They can write many articles on abuse, but in practice they do not help with a specific case. Their words and what they really do leave a lot to be desired,” said the attorney.
Before the start of the trial, the congregation began posting articles on its website about how to deal with abuse cases. Asked about it, Burkhard said that she took these publications as “a change of position” and with the expectation that “they will collaborate in some way”.
“I was hoping they had another way of helping in the case, but apparently it was a screen,” she considered.
Regarding the case of Matías Vargas, one of the defendants who was expelled a few weeks after the complaint in 2017, the plaintiff’s lawyer pointed out that the Elders confirmed that expulsion, but avoided giving reasons. “They admit it, but never say why. They surely know it because if not, they would not have expelled him. I believe that they know but they don’t want to say it,” she closed.
“They are accomplices”
Natalia Cabrera, a lawyer and member of Green Peace Advocates, also regretted that the congregation has been reluctant to collaborate with Justice. “We have learned that it was believed that the Elders were going to help with the case, mainly after having expelled Vargas from the congregation, but unfortunately they did not agree. They took refuge in the law that guarantees them secrecy for being high-ranking members of a Church. They refused to give the reasons why Vargas was expelled. They refused to expose the background information that they were able to collect, because we know that there are other victims who do not dare to make a complaint. They were known in the Church through this complaint made by Belén,” she pointed out.
“Belén is really destroyed. It is the Church that her mother still trusts. The one she always went to. She came out very shocked. The Jehovah’s Witnesses wrote a letter in which they refused to disclose who helped them discover this law in which they take refuge not to testify. Their testimonies were in vain. Although they claim that they maintain a neutral position, in the face of an injustice maintaining a neutral position is nothing more than being accomplices.”
“They definitely could have put a different spin on it and made Belén feel supported by the congregation that she trusted so much in her early years. They should have tried to resolve the investigation and not put obstacles in the way so that it is possible to know what happened, when and how,” she concluded.