APOPA, El Salvador -- When Pope John Paul II spoke out on the church's pedophile priest scandals for the first time this week, he did it on the eve of a trip through a region that has scarcely been touched by them: Latin America.
Even as hundreds of priests and bishops from the U.S. to Poland have been implicated in the abuse of children, only a handful of cases have come to light in a population that accounts for about 30% of the world's Roman Catholics.
The church's power, the region's bankrupt judicial systems and a culture that abhors homosexuality have combined to create enormous barriers to claims of priestly abuse, experts say.
Few doubt that such abuses occur in Latin America with the same rare frequency as in other parts of the world. But here, they appear to be easier to conceal.
"Here, priests are sacred, almost godlike. They have total power. No common person is going to take them to court," said Sergio Bran, a sociologist at the University of Central America in El Salvador who has long studied the Roman Catholic Church.
At an outdoor Mass in Toronto on Sunday, the pope told hundreds of thousands of followers that ''the harm done ... to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame.''
Individual cases have been reported in Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela. Three priests in Chile have been sued in connection with alleged pedophilia incidents. And former students have long accused a papal ally in Mexico of repeated abuses. The Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of a conservative order known as the Legion of Christ, has vehemently denied the accusations.
Here in this booming suburb of factory workers and fast-food chains, it took a most uncommon man to bring to light one of the few known cases of pedophilia in Central America.
William Hernandez, 31, the leader of a local gay rights group, is a rarity in El Salvador: an openly bisexual man. His advocacy has come at a cost to his safety--he is always accompanied in public by police protection.
Earlier this year, Hernandez formally accused a Catholic priest of having abused him nearly 15 years ago. The Salvadoran church opened an ecclesiastical trial against the priest, Luis Recinos, who has reportedly moved to Rome. He has denied the charge.
Hernandez's story helps explain why so few pedophilia cases have been made public in Latin America.
Recinos took over the squat white church that overlooks the central square in Apopa in 1988. He made it his mission to energize the region, which had long been overlooked in the shadow of the nearby capital, San Salvador. He built new churches in rural areas, constructed a community hall and created teams of lay clergy to visit the poor.
Parishioners loved his forceful, charismatic style.
"I have lived a long time in Apopa, and nobody has ever done what he did. He wanted to make the church into a utopia for the people," said Luz Estrella Rodriguez, a city councilor who worked with Recinos.
Recinos made Hernandez, then 16, his personal assistant. And he began to make sexual advances, Hernandez said.
At first, there were just hugs and tender kisses, but then, Hernandez said, Recinos demanded oral sex. The priest would beat him when he refused.
Although Hernandez was a young man, he said he didn't fight back. Like many Catholic faithful in Latin America, the idea of challenging a priest was unthinkable.
"My religious background limited my ability to respond," he said. "I was raised in a strictly Catholic home. I would never think of raising my hand against a priest."
It was also difficult to tell anyone about the alleged abuse.
In Latin America's macho culture, the myth persists--especially in the case of males who have been raped--that the victim of a sexual attack is somehow to blame for the crime. "People don't see the boy as a victim, but as a coward, an effeminate person," sociologist Bran said. "The macho culture is very cruel. It doesn't recognize victimhood." Hernandez ran away in 1989, after a year of abuse, he said. But it wasn't until two years ago that he decided to report Recinos, after a friend told him that he, too, had been abused by Recinos as a teenager.
Hernandez wasn't the only one complaining about Recinos.
Before coming to Apopa, Recinos had been accused of molesting boys at a previous parish. He was sent to Rome to study theology for a year, then returned to El Salvador, where he began abusing Hernandez, according to a church official investigating the case.
Rumors of abuse surfaced again in 1998, and Recinos was sent to Rome for a second time. He returned to yet another parish.
Hernandez said his complaint in 2000 seemed to have no effect.
"I talked with the bishop. His only response was, 'When you leave, shut the door.' I got up, I left, and I didn't shut the door," Hernandez said.
This May, when the U.S. scandal was at its height, Hernandez decided to complain again. This time, the church opened the formal ecclesiastical tribunal against Recinos. Top church officials say the evidence they have collected points to his guilt.
"We believe this case has merit," said one top church official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Recinos couldn't be reached for comment. But the bishop who is defending him in the tribunal said the priest has denied the charges against him.
"He asked me to pray for him and said, 'I hope you can help me,' " Bishop Rafael Urrutia said.
Church officials insisted that they had always taken the reports of abuse seriously. But they said they were won over by Recinos' declarations that he had reformed himself.
The church "acted, because it separated him from his parish," said Bishop Ricardo Urioste, who is in charge of the council investigating Recinos. "He told us, 'I have recuperated,' and the church believed him."
Urioste also dismissed the idea that the church's power, or a cultural bias against sexual victimhood, accounted for the lack of cases in Latin America.
Instead, he suggested that there were simply fewer Latin American priests disposed to attacking children.
And, he insisted, the church in El Salvador is acting aggressively to root out any deviant priests.
"We have been very clear that anyone can approach the tribunal," Urioste said.
"Everyone has a right to approach the church."
But an influential Catholic cleric in San Salvador told The Times that the church suspects at least three other priests in El Salvador of having abused children. None of the men has been reported to civil authorities.
Church leaders, he said, simply feel that such matters are best handled internally.
"The church still has not confronted this problem decisively. This is something that everybody knows about but nobody talks about," said the leader, who did not want to be identified.
"They have not opened the doors on this problem, only let in a little light through some windows," he said.
The reluctance to approach civil authorities, however, is not confined to the church. Unlike in the United States, where many of the abuse incidents came to light through civil actions, few people in Latin America trust the judicial system.
There is no culture of civil litigation in the region, where judges are often paid off, trials can take years and the system seems tilted to favor the powerful.
A final problem comes on the criminal side. Police investigations often fail.
Conviction rates are astoundingly low throughout Latin America.
Judge Melida Rivera, formerly a prosecutor, once tried to investigate an accusation of abuse involving a U.S. priest who worked at a children's home in western El Salvador. Although the victim has since retracted his accusation, Rivera said she would have liked to conduct blood and semen tests to determine whether the case had merit.
The priest left El Salvador soon after the accusation surfaced in 2000, and Rivera couldn't issue a warrant for his arrest, nor demand the tests, given the evidence she had.
"The laws of our country," she said, "are simply too lax."