Helping the helpless
More than just a photograph, irrefutable proof.
It was three weeks ago when a woman named Carolina called me to denounce abuses inside the Pequeño Cottolengo shelter in the city of Quintero, near Valparaiso. The shelter is part of a chain of homes for mentally handicapped children and youths run by the Catholic Church. Carolina had been working there only three months.
I met with her and saw photos that she had taken with her cell phone during the different shifts she worked there. One of the images showed very clearly the bruises caused by the beating of a young girl, a girl too handicapped to defend herself. Others showed the obvious effects of malnutrition on one young boy.
I asked her if it was possible to take more images, and she answered that she was willing to face all the consequences, including losing her job, to be able to help the children.
I thought that this matter couldn’t wait and it must be made public through solid proof of the abuses. It wasn’t easy to get evidence from inside an isolated shelter where the children are closed in with almost no windows and just one door, as if in a bunker. My editor at Reuters saw the cell phone photos and we spoke of the way to move forward. With the involvement of minors, things get complicated when their faces are shown, and the range of legal issues that can arise.
We decided to not rush the story and with that in mind I met again with Carolina and loaned her a pocket camera that belongs to my daughter. It was the quickest lesson in photography that I ever gave. Luckily Carolina assimilates technology easily and understood the differences in light. I made sure the camera’s date and time were correct, in the event of any doubts of the moment the pictures would be taken.
Carolina’s new photos were clearer and better focused, and it gave us more to show. The most graphic ones were of a boy in a straight jacket, tied to his bed. She had already contacted the police and a local prosecutor, and the meeting we had motivated them to plan a raid on the Pequeño Cottolengo with their full team of criminal investigators.
When I accompanied the police and prosecutor on the raid, the priest in charge of the shelter was so enraged that after I took a few photos of him and turned around for a moment, he punched me in the back of the head. It was more infuriating than harmful, and it took more energy not to react against him after all that I had seen and heard of the abuses against these poor, defenseless kids.
It was that blow that made it clear that the story had produced its effect. It made the days of waiting for new images worthwhile, new images that certainly won’t win a prize but that serve as decisive proof of the reality inside the shelter. It’s the power of the image as testimony to aid those who can’t speak nor defend themselves, but in whose faces I could see pain and silent screams.
Those responsible for the abuses have been criminally indicted, and Father Ferrini has been replaced. Many people have called the police offering to help legally, financially and personally, as they see fit.
It was a great achievement by Carolina for her courage to show her face openly and trust me. Now the most important thing left is to change the quality of life for these small angels.