Originally published on El Argentino on March 1 2021.
An oral and public trial will begin in which the defendants Matías Vargas and Vito Luciano Panza will be seated in the dock, to whom the Prosecutor’s Office and the complaint are charged with crimes against sexual integrity to the detriment of two girls from the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation, who reported them as teenagers.
The hearings will be on March 10, 11 and 12, before a Trial Court composed of judges Carolina Castagno, Gustavo Pimentel and Elvio Garzón. The case was originally going to take place on May 6, 7 and 8 last year in Paraná, but it was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic that halted judicial activity.
As reported by Entre Ríos Now, the judicial authorities decided to change the venue for the oral and public debate and, consequently, it will take place in the La Paz Courts.
The case was opened in April 2017, when an 18-year-old teenager reported the defendants on Facebook, pointing to them as abusers.
The letter prompted the intervention of the Secretariat for Women of the Municipality of Santa Elena, which provided support to the young woman and her cousin, who also reported abuses. Both confirmed their statements in the judiciary, where they reported that the events occurred when they were between 8 and 11 years old.
The preparatory criminal investigation was conducted by the prosecutor of La Paz, Facundo Barbosa, who accuses Vargas (about 42 years) and his brother Panza (32).
To the first, he attributed the crimes of seriously outrageous aggravated sexual abuse, repeated simple sexual abuse, aggravated by being committed by a minister of worship, plus corruption of minors; meanwhile, his brother-in-law was charged with seriously aggravated outrageous sexual abuse and corruption of minors.
In his submission to trial, the prosecutor Barbosa requested a sentence of 18 years in prison for Vargas and 15 years for Panza. Meanwhile, the plaintiff lawyer Valeria Burckhard, who represents one of the young complainants, requested 20 years in prison for both defendants.
Vargas was a “ministerial servant,” that is, a preacher, spiritual guide, and direct collaborator of the Elders (the name given to the leaders of the congregation). That position or “privilege” – as it is called among Jehovah’s Witnesses – was withdrawn when it was reported. For that reason that he knew how to use his position, the penalty is greater than that of his brother-in-law, Panza.
The defendants are defended by the lawyer Roberto Alsina, who asks for acquittal because he considers that the crimes are prescribed by the passage of time.
The investigation concluded in November 2018, when the prosecutor requested the referral of the case to trial and the Judge of Guarantees of La Paz, Walter Carballo, granted the request on February 20, 2020.
19 witnesses will be presented at the trial. On March 10, five testimonies are expected to be heard (after the opening statements) in the morning and another five in the afternoon, the Entre Ríos Now website reported.
March 11 will be the second day of the trial and it will also be held in two parts. In the morning, five witnesses must appear and in the afternoon, another four.
Finally, on March 12 at 9am will be the closing arguments of the trial.
Some of the most important testimonies are those of the mothers of the victims; the psychologist Gabriela Torregrosa, whose expert reports were key to the charges; that of María Elena Vega, former secretary of the Department of Women of the Municipality of Santa Elena who gave support to the adolescents; and witnesses for the defense, made up of some relatives of the accused and members of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation.
It will be important in the trial to know what the position of members of the congregation will be, who during the investigation process were reluctant to work with the Prosecutor’s Office and the complainants.
A sample of the reluctance of a part of the organization was seen on September 6, 2017, when the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, headquartered in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, responded to the Prosecutor’s Office that they would not provide information on both accused. They relied on Law 25.362, on Personal Data Protection. The letter was signed by Christian Hernán Stinson, legal representative of the Association at the national level.
The truth is that, as in all criminal proceedings, witnesses who falsely testify may be at the mercy of a criminal case. This was instructed on August 27, 2019 by the Attorney General of the Province, Jorge Amílcar García, who ordered all the prosecutors under his command to request the immediate arrest of witnesses who in different criminal proceedings incur the crime of false testimony.
Then, García considered that it is “of political-criminal priority” for the Attorney General to act immediately in situations of “commission of the crime of flagrant perjury.”
One of the most recent witnesses convicted of prejury -in the framework of a process for abuse-, is that of the priest Mario Gervasoni, private secretary of the Archbishop of Paraná, Juan Alberto Puiggari. The priest was reproached for his statement regarding priest Justo José Ilarraz, sentenced in 2018 to 25 years in prison for abuse and corruption of minors, in the investigation of the case.
The priest was sentenced to one year of conditional prison on October 1, 2019, and the sentence was confirmed by the Criminal Cassation Chamber in February 2020.