In 1945, before he was 12 years old, with his mother, in Bolivia, Mario Vargas Llosa believed “in the toys of the Child God, and that storks brought babies from heaven.” “Not a single one of those that confessors called bad thoughts crossed my mind; they appeared later, when he was already living in Lima. He was a naughty and crying child, but innocent as a lily ”, he recalls. Until, at that almost adolescent age, Father Leoncio appeared to the Nobel Prize, and felt his fly touch him. From that moment from which he came out terrified and the priest was ashamed, his disbelief in religion and the Catholic Church was born. He recounted the event in his memoirs (A Fish in the Water, first edition in Planeta, 1993), written after his defeat in the Peruvian elections in which he aspired to be president of his country. Now he has recounted his incident with the priest Luciano, this time at the Cajamarca Virtual Book Fair (Peru), and the repercussion has been formidable. He commented on it this Friday from Paris, by phone; he is there fulfilling editorial commitments to his French house, Gallimard.
Question. That pedophile assault is causing a lot of stir …
Answer. It happened a thousand years ago! I was very young … I was very annoyed with that attempt to masturbate by the priest, a brother named Leoncio. It happened when I was in sixth grade. The following year the priest was very ashamed, he did not dare to greet me in the recres, when I wasn’t even in his class anymore. The only consequence of this story was that I, who had been very Catholic, began to realize that I no longer believed. Religion became a kind of purely formal thing, and I had been quite a believer. But I took a distance with that, religion stopped being a problem for me, unlike for some colleagues who were very obsessed with the religious issue. The truth is that in my case that was a small incident.
P. For others there were traumas that lasted a lifetime.
R. Yes, of course, in some people it had traumatic consequences, but it was not my case. That band-aid didn’t get to bigger things. When I felt his hands searching my fly I became very nervous, I left the room completely, and he too was attacked with equal nervousness.
P. That fact offers you the possibility today, when it is a matter of enormous global concern, to warn of the danger that it constitutes …
R. That’s how it is. All the precautions that are taken are necessary. Many of these children generally suffer life-long trauma and are severely affected. It didn’t happen with me because that was just a moment. But it did have the effect of turning me away from religion, of becoming disinterested in it, and I realized that I no longer believed, that my relationship with the Church was a completely formal attitude in which there was no inner commitment like the one I had before before the religious thing.
All known cases of pedophilia in the Spanish Church
P. Did you tell it at home?
R. No, no, not at all, not at all, of the shame I had. Go figure! I didn’t even tell my friends. I think that until many years passed, when I wrote my memoirs, I mentioned it there, but I would never have dared to divulge it before. Imagine to such a thing what my father’s reaction would have been!
P. Count it in A Fish in the Water.
R. Only when I wrote those memoirs did I dare to mention this episode that for many years not even the most intimate ones got to know. There it appears for the first time because I had already taken a distance, many years had passed, I already felt bold enough to be able to tell it.
P. The impact it has now is greater because there is more awareness of the dangers of pedophilia practiced by priests or educators …
R. That is terrible, it causes horrible traumas in children, and it must be punished, corrected very energetically. Abusing children is something absolutely unacceptable and before this you should not have any kind of contemplation. Protecting children is the first obligation of a society.
P. Most of the complaints point to clerics …
R. The Church should take a more energetic attitude, yes. Now the Church has a conscience, before it tried rather to hide these things. Now she assumes them and is very ashamed. As it should be, that’s normal … I had no problems, I was vaccinated against that, I completely distanced myself from religion, but boys in my neighborhood never recovered. In fact, when I went to study at [Colegio Militar] Leoncio Prado neither went to mass nor did he confess or take communion.
P. Nor did it appear in your literature?
R. Except in those memories. It became neither an obsession nor a topic.
P. Was there a way of seeing the Church in a different way?
R. I took a distance with the Church. Until I went to Israel for the first time and read the Bible, long after school and university… For these traumas, we must ask the Church for responsibility, which did not take the necessary precautions, and for that reason now they feel uncomfortable, ashamed. In this age when these things can be dealt with openly, we must be very, very intolerant of child abuse because it can seriously affect the children who are victims of morbid priests.
P. Were your parents very religious?
R. My mother was very religious, like my maternal family. I could never tell her something like that, the scandal would have been intolerable for her … My father took a distance. When he separated from my mother, he got together with an evangelical person. The first time he hit me was shortly after going to Lima, a Sunday when I was being punished and I thought that the punishment did not include going to mass. As I left the parish, I saw him transformed, with a fit of anger. It was the first time he hit me and it was for having taken the liberty of going to mass on a Sunday while being punished.
P. Has the current church changed its attitude?
R. She is much more aware of what trauma means to child victims. He has taken many precautions, so much so that some orders already publicly acknowledge the traumatic cases they have in their midst. The Church is much more aware in this age of the enormous significance of being tolerant in this field. I think tolerance is absolutely crazy. For years this was hidden, but I think that today the Church does not hide them and that, on the contrary, it is more interested in making them public. It’s difficult for guys, it was in my time, to touch on these issues, they silenced them without knowing that this was going to have tragic consequences in their lives.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.