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MEDELLÍN, Colombia (ChurchMilitant.com) - In one of the most shocking clerical abuse scandals to hit Colombia, Abp. Ricardo Antonio Tobón Restrepo of Medellín stands accused of covering up a priest who allegedly raped a 14-year-old girl and forced her to undergo an abortion.
The archbishop has been accused of protecting numerous predator priests within his diocese, with at least 44 cases being brought to light.
Despite these allegations, he has refused to take action regarding a rape complaint against Fr. Iván Darío Restrepo Salazar, the parish priest of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Santa Cruz, Medellín.
On Thursday, the Spanish edition of BBC World News published a chilling account of Natalia Restrepo's testimony after the victim returned to her parish of St. Gertrude the Great in Envigado to "tell the most painful story I have lived through."
"I have come back to Medellín with my young daughter, carrying two suitcases and with a firm determination to break my silence, to expose, once again and by any means necessary, the priest who raped me and forced me to have an abortion in 2004 when I was just 14 years old," Restrepo said.
Raised by her devoutly Catholic grandmother, Restrepo became an altar server at the age of 11 and joined the "missionary childhood groups" at St. Gertrude the Great, the parish church of Envigado, where she first encountered her rapist, then a seminarian, who would often offer Masses and engage the congregation through singing and playing the guitar.
"He stood out because his Masses were captivating, unlike the others," recalled Restrepo, now 32 years old. "He was charismatic, known for his talent and voice. Moreover, he had attended the same school as me, Liceo Francisco Restrepo Molina."
Father Iván Salazar was ordained a priest in 2002 and was subsequently assigned to St. Gertrude the Great, where he forged a friendship with his victim. He would often request her help with tasks such as computer work or designing billboards.
"I felt special. He made me believe that I was important because of my handwriting and my artistic skills. He made me feel cared for," shared Restrepo. "With time, I became his favorite. I accompanied him to Masses outside the parish or to anoint sick individuals. We would go in his car, and he would always drop me off at my house afterwards."
Following a youth group meeting one Saturday, the priest invited his victim to accompany him to a celebration of Mass held at a club in an affluent area of Medellín. Later, he drove her to the nearby town of Sabaneta, where they visited an outdoor restaurant that served roast meat.
"We stayed there for about an hour, eating and drinking. When we got back into the car, he didn't take me home as usual. Instead, he drove me to a still-existing motel," recalled Restrepo.
Confused and concerned, she questioned the priest, asking why he was taking her to such a place. He responded: "So that we can have something to drink without anyone seeing us. Drinking would not be appropriate for a priest in public."
"I remained calm because I knew he sometimes drank. Besides, I trusted him. I had known him for a long time, and he had never done anything to me," Restrepo said, describing the motel as a collection of rooms resembling cabins with individual parking lots, where access was gained only through a metal door.
"The priest drank excessively and then began trying to undress me," Restrepo continued. "I was confused and unable to fully comprehend what was happening. I had never received any sex education, and discussing sex with my grandmother was considered taboo."
The victim described the rape in her testimony:
I pleaded with him to stop, but he ignored my pleas. I started to feel extremely afraid. I began knocking on the garage door, hoping someone would hear me and help, but he assured me that no one would come to my aid since the reception area was far away. What followed is the most horrifying memory I possess: he removed his clothing, threw me onto the bed, spread my legs, and forcibly violated me.
"I screamed in pain. I was just a teenager, and he was taking my virginity. I don't know how I managed to break free, but I burst into tears. I cried uncontrollably, but he didn't seem to care. He told me that I was his, and that I would always be his," she added.
Devastatingly, shortly after the initial assault, the priest subjected the teenager to further abuse by confining her to a room in his rectory and masturbating in front of her. Restrepo noted that the abuse would have persisted if she had not ceased menstruating.
Concerned for her well-being, a friend urged Restrepo to take a urine test, but due to inconclusive results, she opted for a blood test instead. The test revealed her pregnancy.
When Restrepo confronted Fr. Salazar with the news "he got angry and told me that I was not going to harm his vocation, that he was just beginning his priestly life," she recollected. "He told me not to worry. He was going to fix it."
The victim recalled that the priest took her to a "woman in a working-class neighborhood" who conducted a vaginal examination and informed them that there was nothing she could do.
"Consequently, we visited a pharmacy, and I observed him passing money to the vendor, who then handed me some pills and explained how to take them. The pharmacist also warned me that the pills would cause severe pain," she said.
"The priest assured me that these pills would bring on my period, but he never explicitly mentioned abortion," Restrepo recollected. She went on to describe how Fr. Salazar persistently called and pressured her, resorting to manipulation and yelling whenever she delayed taking the abortifacient.
In 2004, when the incident occurred, abortion was illegal in Colombia. Cytotec, a medication primarily used for the prevention and treatment of gastrointestinal ulcers, gained popularity as a clandestine option for terminating pregnancies. It was available without a prescription at local pharmacies, BBC News World reported.
After taking the drug, Restrepo began to experience intense pain, heavy bleeding and expulsion of blood clots. A few days later, she was compelled to visit a clinic, where medical professionals performed a curettage procedure to remove the remnants from the abortion.
"At the time, I also felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for having terminated the pregnancy. I was confused and believed that what I had done was a grave sin," she lamented.
Years later, Restrepo lodged a complaint with the archdiocese of Medellín. In response, she said, a priest took notes in a book and, upon finishing, patted her on the shoulder, urging forgiveness, stating, "They are men, and they make mistakes too."
"No action was taken. They never contacted me again," the victim revealed. "When I inquired about the progress of my initial complaint, they provided no answer. The lady who attended to me promised to check the files and get back to me, but she never did."
Determined, Restrepo proceeded to file a second complaint, which was received by Aux. Bp. José Mauricio Vélez García of Medellín.
"He entered everything into a computer and read it aloud to ensure that I was aware of the information being recorded. I signed the document and asked for his opinion," the victim recounted. García deemed the complaint "very serious" and vowed to pursue it with the utmost "responsibility and rigor."
After five months of seeking information from the archdiocese and enlisting the support of secular authorities, the archdiocese finally responded to the BBC in writing, confirming the existence of Restrepo's two complaints against Fr. Salazar.
Following the abuse, Restrepo distanced herself from the Church and sought solace in Chile, where she began rebuilding her life. It was there that she met her husband and had a daughter. News of other cases involving abusive priests bolstered her confidence and motivated her to return to Colombia to reopen her own case.
"This made me reflect and question why I couldn't speak out when others had done so after years had passed," she remarked. "I discovered that the priest who raped me is still practicing in another parish in Antioquia."
"This realization provided me with the final push I needed to embark on this journey, to come forward and publicly share my story. I believe it is unacceptable for him to continue hearing confessions, conducting Masses, and preaching about virtuous matters after committing such serious offenses," Restrepo emphasized.
"All I want is for him to be held accountable for his actions, but not with a mere temporary suspension or punishment. I hope he is sentenced to jail for the crimes he has committed," she added.
Restrepo also revealed that she filed a complaint with Colombian authorities in September 2022.
Unfortunately, the Colombian prosecutors' office has stated that it is unable to proceed with the charges due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.
Church Militant asked Abp. Restrepo why Fr. Salazar was still in active ministry, but the archbishop did not respond to the query.
Although BBC World News did not disclose the name of the priest who assaulted Restrepo, various sources in Medellín, including investigative journalist Juan Pablo Barrientos, have confirmed the identity of the perpetrator.
Barrientos, author of Let the Little Children Come to Me — an exposé of clerical sex abuse — called Abp. Restrepo "the most dangerous concealer of pedophile priests" in the Colombian bishops' conference, noting that "he is not the only one" and is protected by Pope Francis.
The archbishop of Medellín "continues in his reign despite five years of documented complaints," the journalist remarked.
"The bishops of @episcopadocol are meeting this week. Most likely, like every 6 months, today they go out to apologize for sexual abuse. Don't believe them. They have hired the best lawyers to continue to cover up hundreds of child sexual predators," Barrientos tweeted.