The Inquisition Comes to the New World
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Published in: July-August 2019 issue.


Sins Against Nature: Sex & Archives in Colonial New Spain
by Zeb Tortorici
Duke.  327 pages, $28.95



IN THE COURSE of an ecclesiastical trial, Father Juan Vallejo eventually confessed to having sex with 115 men and boys. He had been denounced by a servant for “committing the abominable, obscene, and foul sin of sodomy” for over eleven years. He died before the trial was completed; therefore, he faced no sentence. This is not a contemporary case but dates from Mexico City in 1712. What had been covered over in the archival dust has become front-page news today.

         Last February, Theodore E. McCarrick (a prominent American cardinal and archbishop of Washington) was defrocked by the Vatican for soliciting sex during confession and for decades of sexual abuse of minors and seminarians. For the past two decades, the Catholic Church has been confronting (or trying to silence) an expanding global scandal of priestly sexual abuse of minors, seminarians, nuns, and congregants (male and female), as well as covering up abortions and priests’ illegitimate children. The current cases date back to the 20th century. However, as Zeb Tortorici’s Sins Against Nature proves, the Catholic Church has meticulously investigated, documented, and largely kept silent on priestly sexual abuses for centuries. The matter of priestly “sodomy” and solicitation in the confessional is only one aspect of Tortorici’s research project: secular and ecclesiastical court documentation of sexual crimes (sodomy, bestiality, solicitation in the confessional, and sexual desecrations) from 1530 to 1821 in colonial New Spain (i.e., the Americas and the Philippines).

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Vernon Rosario is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a historian of science.