Chilean Court Upholds Acquittal of Bishop Accused of Covering Up Disappearance of Teen

Harex, who would now be 38, disappeared the night of Oct. 19, 2001, in Punta Arenas when he was returning from a birthday party.

(photo: Courtesy photo / Diocese of Punta Arenas)

The Supreme Court of Justice of Chile recently upheld the acquittal of Bishop Emeritus Bernardo Bastres Florence of the Diocese of Punta Arenas.

The prelate was prosecuted in October, accused of covering up the alleged kidnapping of Ricardo Harex González, who disappeared in 2001 at the age of 17.

Along with Bishop Bastres, two priests and four members of the police force were investigated, and all were ordered to be held in preventive detention.

Harex, who would now be 38, disappeared the night of Oct. 19, 2001, in Punta Arenas when he was returning from a birthday party.

At that time, several witnesses claimed to have seen at the scene Salesian priest Rimsky Rojas Andrade, who was the principal of the San José high school where the young man was studying, and whom the local press described as someone who regularly picked up drunk students at night to “take care of them.”

In testimonies reported by the Chilean press, Father Rojas is accused of harassing and sexually abusing other students. The Salesian priest committed suicide in 2011 amid the investigation.

To date, Harex has not been found nor has anyone been convicted of his disappearance.

The investigation then turned to the current bishop emeritus and other priests, accusing them of being accessories to the double life of Rojas and the disappearance of Harex.

The Punta Arenas Court of Appeals accepted the two appeals in defense of the bishop and one of the priests, nullifying the prosecution.

The judges then determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate the underlying crime, the kidnapping of the young man, nor the participation of the accused.

However, the Harex family’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn that court’s decision.

After reviewing the appeal, the second chamber of the Supreme Court ruled Nov. 7 to reject the appeal and upheld the acquittal of the bishop emeritus of Punta Arenas.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Bishop Bastres issued a statement in which, first, he remembered the family of Ricardo Harex. “They’ve gone through an ordeal,” he said, and regretted that the investigation carried out by the authorities aroused hope but in the end did not determine “the crime or the possible perpetrators.”

When he learned he was to be prosecuted, Bishop Bastres recalled, he was “disconcerted” because, he said, “I perceived it as the ‘coup de grace’ that ‘finished me off’ in the media, giving free rein to all kinds of judgments and speculation.”

In the 27 days that he was unable to publicly exercise the priestly ministry after the trial began, the prelate said he asked God “to clear things up, so that, knowing the truth, justice would be served.”

Bishop Bastres also expressed his pain for the other priests, who “have had to bear a burden that did not conform to the truth” and “endure criticism and misunderstanding.”

The prelate also lamented the suffering of the current bishop, Óscar Hernán Blanco, and the faithful of the diocese, “who did not deserve such an affront.”

Finally, he said that “in light of the truth, we hope that the community can continue, without this cloud of doubts and misunderstandings, its mission of announcing the Good News to everyone, especially those who need it most.”

Respecting the Court Decisions

The Diocese of Punta Arenas issued a statement calling for respect for judicial decisions and due process.

In its message, the diocese said that “like all citizens, the members of the Church must cooperate in the investigations to which they are enjoined.”

Given the gravity of the situation, the Chilean diocese encouraged “proceeding with the necessary rigor in the search for justice,” and reaffirmed the hope of “knowing the truth about the grievous disappearance of young Ricardo Harex.”