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LUJAN DE CUYO, Argentina – The children said they wailed as the two Roman Catholic priests repeatedly raped them inside the small school chapel in remote northwestern Argentina. Only their tormenters would have heard their cries since the other children at the school were deaf.
The clerical sex abuse scandal unfolding at the Antonio Provolo Institute for hearing impaired children in Mendoza province would be shocking enough on its own. Except that dozens of students in the Provolo Institute's school in Italy were similarly abused for decades, allegedly by the same priest who now stands accused of raping and molesting young deaf Argentines.
And the Vatican knew about him since at least 2009, when the Italy victims went public with tales of shocking abuse against the most vulnerable of children and named names. In 2014, the Italian victims wrote directly to Pope Francis again naming the Rev. Nicola Corradi as a pedophile and flagged that he was living in Francis' native Argentina. Yet apparently, nothing was done.
At least 24 students of the Provolo institute in Argentina have now come forward seeking justice for the abuse they say they suffered at the hands of Corradi, 82, another priest, the Rev. Horacio Corbacho, 55, and three other men. The five were arrested in late November by police who raided the school and found magazines featuring naked women and about $34,000 in Corradi's room.
All the suspects are being held at a jail in Mendoza and have not spoken publicly since their arrest.
"From the pope down ... all of the Catholic Church hierarchy is the same. They all knew," one of the Mendoza victims told The Associated Press through a sign language interpreter.
Another victim said the priests would rape again if released.
"This happened in Italy ... it happened again here, and it must end," the victim said, insisting on speaking anonymously. "Enough!"
Victims and prosecutors say the anal and vaginal rapes, fondling and oral sex by the priests took place in the bathrooms, dorms, garden and a basement at the school in Lujan de Cuyo, a city about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires.
The school has "a little chapel with an image of the Virgin and some chairs where the kids would get confession and receive the communion. That's where some of the acts were happening," Fabrizio Sidoti, the prosecutor who has been leading the investigation since the scandal broke, told the AP.
Children from other regions of Argentina who lived at the dorms were especially vulnerable and often targeted by the abusers. The tales are harrowing: One of the victims told the AP she witnessed how a girl was raped by one priest while the other one forced her to give him oral sex.
The prosecutor is expecting more than 20 other people to provide testimony and more victims to come forward.
Pope Francis has not spoken publicly about the case and the Vatican declined to comment.
Advocates of sex abuse victims by priests question how Francis could have been unaware of Corradi's misdeeds, given he was publicly named by the Italy victims.
"No other pope has spoken as passionately about the evil of child sex abuse as Francis. No other pope has invoked 'zero tolerance' as often. No other pope has promised accountability of church superiors," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability, an online resource about clerical abuse. "In light of the crimes against the helpless children in Mendoza, the Pope's assurances seem empty indeed."
On Dec. 11, the pope appeared in a video using sign language to wish deaf people worldwide a merry Christmas — a gesture that fell particularly flat in Argentina as Catholics struggle with the enormity of the scandal.
"Either he lives outside of reality or this is enormously cynical ... it's a mockery," said Carlos Lombardi, an attorney who specializes in canon law.
The Provolo case first exploded in Italy in 2009, when the Italian victims went public with stories of abuse after what they said were three useless years of negotiations with the diocese of Verona, where the institute has its Italy headquarters.
The 67 victims alleged sexual abuse, pedophilia and corporal punishment at the hands of priests, brothers and lay religious from the 1950s to the 1980s. At the time, 14 of the victims wrote sworn statements and videotaped their testimony detailing the abuse they suffered. They named 24 priests, lay religious and religious brothers in a list that was published online.
Corradi was one of those included in the list, which specified he was in Argentina at that time.
In 2010, the Vatican ordered the Verona diocese to investigate the claims. One of the victims named Corradi during the inquiry.
But he apparently was never sanctioned. Five other accused were.
The Italian victims didn't stop.
On Dec. 31, 2013, they wrote to the pope asking him to institute an independent commission of inquiry to investigate clerical sex abuse in Italy.
On Oct. 20, 2014, they wrote Francis and the Verona bishop naming 14 priests and lay religious from the institute who were still alive and in ministry who allegedly had sexually abused them. They named Corradi, and noted that he and three others were in Argentina.
"We must point out that the behavior of the church is not in the least bit in line with the 'zero tolerance' stance of Pope Francis," they wrote, listing the 14 priests and their current locations. "Such behavior makes us think that the church has no interest in the suffering provoked by priests who sexually abused deaf children, priests who continue to live their lives normally, priests who never apologized to victims, priests who never asked forgiveness and for whom the church itself attempts to let the time pass in hopes that everything is forgotten."
No response was immediately received.
More than two years later, the Vatican's No. 3 official, Monsignor Angelo Becciu, acknowledged receipt of the letters. In a Feb. 5, 2016, response, he said that as far as the Provolo victims' request for a commission of inquiry was concerned, he had forwarded the proposal to the Italian Bishops' Conference.
The Italian Bishops' Conference didn't respond to an email seeking comment on whether such a commission was under consideration.
"I'm convinced that some hierarchy covered this up. They sent the wolf to take care of the sheep," said Alejandro Gulle, the chief prosecutor in Mendoza.
The Mendoza Archbishopric says it was unaware of the accusations against Corradi. "A religious man comes to a diocese and you trust the legitimate superior," spokesman Marcelo De Benedectis said.
He said that allegations aired by the case have been "so outrageous," the Mendoza diocese has taken measures like demanding a sworn statement from religious people stating that they don't have "backgrounds" under canon or civil law.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been informed about the Mendoza accusations, he added.
Unlike the Verona case, the alleged crimes in Mendoza have not expired due to the statute of limitations and could lead to up to 50-year jail sentences for a conviction.
A prosecutor is also probing accusations by a man who says he was abused at the Provolo Institute in the city of La Plata when Corradi first arrived in Argentina in the 1980s.
"We want justice to be served. We might be able to get long sentences. I hope they're the maximum," said Gulle, the Mendoza prosecutor. "But we'll never compensate the spiritual damage suffered by these children."
Associated Press video journalist Paul Byrne and AP writers Luis Andres Henao in Buenos Aires and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.