GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — There is mourning in Guatemala after at least 35 girls perished in a fire at a state-run home for youth, which had attracted widespread charges of abusive conditions and mistreatment.
The Church “greatly mourns a tragedy of this kind,” Auxiliary Bishop Raúl Antonio Martínez Paredes of the Archdiocese of Guatemala told CNA.
The fire occurred March 8 at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home. A group of girls and teenagers rioted to protest what they alleged was physical and sexual abuse at the facilities. Authorities said that some of the children set fire to mattresses, and the fire then spread to the rest of the facility.
Gloria Castro, attorney for the children, told Guatemala’s Congress that the girls who died in the fire were unable to get out because they were locked in a room, apparently as a punishment. The previous night, some 60 children escaped from the center.
The center, located in the San Antonio area of the town of San José Pinula, was created to provide protection for about 400 girls and teenagers abandoned and at risk. However, it currently houses close to 750 children, including those in trouble with the law.
Bishop Martinez Paredes said it might be possible to discover who is responsible for the incident, but he said it is most important to resolve the problems of the safe house.
“If it’s closed, what will be done with the young people who have rights and needs?” the bishop asked. “It's almost certain that we Christians can offer some help.”
Noting the complaints that provoked the riot, the bishop voiced concern that no distinction was made between younger girls and teenagers, or between those who have committed crimes and those who have not. He said the facilities are “not appropriate” and are joined together.
The shelter “practically became a children’s prison, when the original idea was to be a home to help children at risk.” He called on authorities to fulfill their obligations to protect children and to build the proper infrastructure.
After the tragedy, the Attorney General’s Office for Human Rights reiterated that in November 2016 it recommended closing this center for failing to comply with the recommendations made in 2015, when the problems facing the children began to be known.
The Office of Human Rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala also expressed “its deepest sorrow and solidarity” with the families of those who died and with those injured in the fire.
It said such an event is unacceptable and would have been avoided had the shelter improved the unfit conditions. The office urged that those responsible for the shelter’s condition be sanctioned and child-protection policies be adopted in line with national and international law.
Such centers must strengthen human persons and their rights, not become places of imprisonment and mistreatment, the human rights office said.
“We pray to the Lord our God to give us and the affected families strength.”
After leading pilgrims in the traditional Angelus prayer on March 12, Pope Francis offered special prayers for the victims of the fire.
“Brothers and sisters, I express my closeness to the people of Guatemala, who live in mourning due to the grave and sad news of the fire that erupted inside the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House, causing victims and wounded among the girls who lived there,” he said.
In his address, Pope Francis prayed that the Lord would “welcome their souls, heal the wounded, console their grieving families and the entire nation.”
He also invited faithful to pray with him “for all boys and girls who are victims of violence, mistreatment, exploitation and wars.”
“This is a plague,” he said. “This is a hidden cry that must be heard by all of us and which we can’t continue to pretend not to see or to hear.”
Elise Harris contributed to this report.