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Abuse Charges at Guatemalan Boys’ Haven : Is Mi Casa Founder John Wetterer a Real Savior or a Child Molester?

Newsday

How to tell her, Manuel Hernandez thought. A couple of times lately he had wanted it to just tumble out, but the moments came and the words would stick in the pit of his stomach.

Now, Mary Tyre was driving Manuel home from his English courses at Miami-Dade Community College in Coral Reef, Fla., on an early evening in early November, 1987. Mary had been a kind of far-off mother to Manuel the last few years, ever since she met him during a visit to the home for orphaned and underprivileged boys in Guatemala City where he lived, a place called Mi Casa (my house.)

They had corresponded regularly and Mary had visited often, lugging boxes of clothes from her consignment shop for Manuel and the other boys. Then Manuel, who had lived in Mi Casa since he was 8, came to Miami for four months to improve his English, staying with Mary and her family. He was now 18, but his gentle nature suggested a younger boy. He felt secure with Mary, a big-hearted woman with two sons of her own.

Mary, Manuel finally said, nervously. Can I talk to you about something? Can I ask you something that is troubling me? Of course, Mary said. But I don’t want you to tell Uncle John because it is very bad. Mary was stone silent.

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And then Manuel told a story that Mary found so unbelievable that all she could do was listen, and cry. They spent an hour at the side of the road as Manuel unlocked a secret that he told her had been hidden inside this renowned place called Mi Casa for a decade.

Soon Manuel would return to Guatemala. He said to Mary: “You have to promise me that you will never tell anybody.”

And for many months the secret--his allegations of sexual abuse by the beloved founder of his Central American boys’ home--stayed between them.

John Wetterer appeared in Guatemala’s capital with three adopted Vietnamese sons, a few suitcases and an offer that the country’s military dictatorship could not refuse. It was 1976: A devastating earthquake had killed 23,000 Guatemalans and left more than a million homeless. Hundreds more were dying in continued political warfare.

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Wetterer’s idea was unquestionably righteous: He offered to open a home for some of the neediest children in the hemisphere.

Wetterer, then 28, was intelligent and ambitious. A Vietnam War veteran from New York who had been wounded twice and awarded the Purple Heart, he had been a dedicated supporter of an orphanage in Da Nang, and after the war had helped hundreds of Americans adopt Vietnamese children.

With support from donors back home and supplies donated by large American corporations, Wetterer became a kind of Central American Father Teresa.

Only four years after his arrival, he took over an old children’s hospital and assumed the role of father to more than 200 boys. His celebrity was growing, and so was his influence among the country’s elite.

A Folk Hero

To grateful Guatemalans, he became a folk hero. To his benefactors back home, he was a model of American altruism. And to his boys, he was Tio Juan--Uncle John, the charismatic American who gave them food, shelter, education and family.

But now the legend of Tio Juan is in mortal danger.

Two former residents of Mi Casa, now young men, say that Wetterer abused them sexually. They say he has molested scores, perhaps hundreds, of young boys.

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Two Miami-based psychologists, specialists in this field who have interviewed those making the allegations, have concluded that the young men were molested and that the Guatemalan government is shielding Wetterer.

“John Wetterer is an abuser of power who has been allowed to run wild,” said William R. Samek, the clinical psychologist from Miami who was hired by board members of Wetterer’s Long Island-based American Friends of Children to investigate the accusations last December.

“He has chosen Guatemala specifically because it is so needy of what he has to offer,” he said. “They opened their arms so non-critically. And he is so well-connected politically that that country is now his turf.

“The paradox is that here’s an American who’s been able to molest Guatemalan children and it’s become a matter of Guatemalan national pride to protect him,” he added. “It’s really bizarre, but that’s what’s happening.”

Funding Cut Off

Several members of the board that had supported Wetterer’s orphanage since its inception--longtime friends of his--now believe, reluctantly, that the charges are true and that he should leave the house indefinitely to allow authorities to conduct a valid investigation. The board has stopped sending Wetterer money.

But six months after the allegations first became known to Guatemalan and American authorities, and two months after they were first broadcast on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” Wetterer remains in the house.

He vigorously denies the allegations and has mounted a campaign to discredit his accusers and assert the virtues of his work.

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Wetterer, who also operates a day school and an emergency shelter for children, insists he could not have controlled such a secret for so long and that one of the two main accusers has personal motives for his claims.

“I’ve been here 12 years and over 2,000 kids have been through here,” he said in a recent interview in his office at Mi Casa. “All of a sudden, in one minute I become a world-famous child abuser. I’m telling you point-blank that I don’t go around abusing kids. Will I recover? I guess we’ll survive. I know the truth, the boys know what’s really the truth and my job is to protect them.”

After the charges surfaced in November, four Guatemalan government agencies made visits to Mi Casa and interviewed boys, but officials said that they never asked them specifically about sexual abuse. The agencies said they were satisfied. One investigation is pending.

Benevolent Headmaster

Wetterer, who runs Mi Casa like a benevolently domineering headmaster whose existence is utterly inseparable from the life of the home, vows that he will never leave. To his supporters, he has portrayed the charges as an attack not on him, but on Mi Casa.

Many Mi Casa boys say they appreciate what Wetterer has given them.

“On the day that I went to Mi Casa he said, ‘I will be your father and I will take care of you,’ ” said Oscar Soeomayor, 25, a former resident. “Because of Uncle John, I’m speaking to you in English. Because of Uncle John, I have a nice job at the Hotel Sheraton and now I will be able to support my future family.” Soeomayor said he knew of no sexual abuse in the house.

Wetterer has even won a measure of support from three of the five young men who allegedly made the initial allegations to “60 Minutes.” They later denied making the charges--though Wetterer’s detractors believe the young men were acting under Wetterer’s influence.

Wetterer is a 41-year-old bachelor, tall and thin, with cropped, graying hair. He is the eldest son of a U.S. Customs official, was born in New York and graduated from high school at 16, two years ahead of his class. He was drafted into the Army in 1967.

While overseas, Wetterer began doing volunteer work at a Catholic orphanage. And when he returned home from the war in 1969, he coached Little League teams and taught seventh-grade religion classes at the Catholic school he attended a decade before.

He always has been asked what drew him to children, and the question has always seemed to annoy him. “Why do some people like to fish? Why do some people like the color blue?” he once asked.

Wetterer, though single, adopted three Vietnamese boys of his own--Bill, who is now 21; David, 20; and Gary, 16. None could be reached for comment on this story.

In August, 1976, after Guatemala accepted his offer to open a home for boys, Wetterer and his adopted sons packed up and moved to Central America. He spoke no Spanish.

At first, he rented a large modern house in a middle-class section of Guatemala City. He converted the bedrooms to bunk rooms, and although his original plan called for housing perhaps 30 boys, more than twice that number showed up on the first day. They were brought by the courts, churches and social workers.

Long List of Donors

Wetterer became adept at public relations. Guatemalan subsidiaries of U.S. corporations--Kellogg and Johnson & Johnson, for instance--donated cereal and soap, and still do.

And in the United States, his American Friends of Children attracted a roll of regular contributors that now totals 400. In 1980, Wetterer moved Mi Casa to larger quarters in a former children’s hospital in the city’s prettiest section--more like a part of Central California than Central America.

Mi Casa, which houses up to 200 boys, became a model for children’s homes in Guatemala. There was a computer room, a print shop, a typing room and a gym. The boys built a swimming pool in the courtyard. Dignitaries visited regularly and Wetterer showed them classrooms filled with obedient boys learning English and math. The visitors couldn’t help but notice the way the youngest ones seemed to cling to Wetterer.

There were opportunities that boys of their social status could only dream of: vacations at Disney World. And the best students could go to the United States, stay with families and study for a year in high schools.

Wetterer employed a cook, a secretary, teachers and a network of American and Guatemalan volunteers, but he ran the Mi Casa with a firm hand.

He became a popular subject for heartwarming newspaper and television stories. As the Miami Herald put it in a story published in 1987, Wetterer was the “soft-hearted gringo who rears the children no one else wants.”

One of those children was Manuel Hernandez, who arrived at Mi Casa in 1977 when he was 8, along with two brothers. His father was an alcoholic who lived apart from the family, and Manuel’s mother saw Mi Casa as a chance, a place where her sons could live and be educated.

In the fall of 1987, Hernandez came to Miami. He would live with Tyre, a dedicated supporter of Mi Casa, and her family while attending English courses at Miami-Dade.

Hernandez had been among the favored at Mi Casa--his soft features and kind disposition made him one of Wetterer’s favorite official greeters--and a few months in Miami were his reward.

But two months after arriving in Miami, Hernandez decided the time was right to tell Tyre his secret. As they sat in the car that November evening, he turned to Tyre and asked a stunning question.

Alarming Confession

“Mary, did you . . . did you used to sleep with your father . . . without clothes?”

Of course not, she answered sharply.

“I . . . used to sleep with Uncle John, without clothes, and, he used to touch me,” Hernandez told her. “Mary, I ask you this because Uncle John said to me once, ‘If a son kisses a father, there isn’t anything wrong.’ I want to know if it’s right for Uncle John to sleep with the boys. Mary, please help me.”

Hernandez went back to Mi Casa to finish high school. He told Mary he was no longer being molested.

When Hernandez went home, Leonel Lopez, now 21, came to Miami. He, too, had become friendly with Tyre during one of her visits. She invited him to Miami.

In April, five months after Hernandez told his story, Lopez started asking Tyre some curious questions. And then Lopez--who says he did not know that Hernandez had told months earlier of being molested--related an almost identical story during a car trip on an errand.

Tyre asked Lopez what he wanted to do about it. “If we can do something without hurting Uncle John or the house, I would like for it to stop,” Lopez said.

They agreed that they could do nothing until Hernandez returned to Miami in the fall. And then Lopez told Hanna Colombey, a flight attendant from Miami who had first introduced Tyre to Mi Casa. She had been Wetterer’s truest believer.

‘Totally Shocked’

“I was totally shocked,” Colombey said. “I wanted to not believe it.”

Lopez and Hernandez, now 20, said they both accepted these experiences as part of life at Mi Casa. Both said Wetterer’s advances stopped when boys reached puberty.

In an interview, Wetterer said the charges by Lopez and Hernandez are part of a plot.

“It’s too unusual that both confessed to Mary. Did I only send my abused kids to Homestead, Fla.?” he said. “I’m telling you . . . I don’t go around abusing kids, not Manuel, not Leonel, not any of the hundreds” that a psychologist hired by “60 Minutes” believes were abused, Wetterer said.

Cut Off Finances

Lopez was trying to destroy him because he cut off the young man’s finances when he decided to stay in Miami last fall, Wetterer said. And he said Lopez was being manipulated by Colombey, whom he called a scorned lover and with whom he said he went out for five years.

Colombey said she never has been intimately involved with Wetterer. And others who have been involved with Mi Casa agree that the two had a platonic relationship.

Another young man speaking out for the first time said that Wetterer was known to have a boy with him overnight nearly every night. “He take one guy and he take another guy for two weeks and after that he sleep with another guy,” said the young man, who asked not to be identified because he is still living in Guatemala. He said he was not sexually abused himself.

All three young men said that although few boys felt they could resist Wetterer, some were more willing than others. In effect, they said, the more agreeable boys were using their bodies as currency, in the belief that pleasing Uncle John would result in privileges and attention. The young men also said that they didn’t complain because they didn’t want to lose the benefits of living at Mi Casa.

‘It’s Revenge’

Teachers and supporters interviewed by Newsday said they found the accounts of abuse incredible.

“My first thought was, ‘If I come here every Tuesday and Thursday, if something like that were true, the kids would be talking about it,’ ” said Carol Fernandez, a volunteer at the house the last four years.

“It’s a private grudge,” said Theresa Kellermann, another supporter who has known Wetterer and has helped him over the years. “It’s revenge.”

After the young men’s disclosures, Tyre and Colombey found themselves facing a huge and frightening task--figuring out what to do.

Tyre and Colombey decided to tell “60 Minutes,” which had earlier spent a week at Mi Casa, what they had been told.

The producers hired Simon Miranda, a Spanish-speaking Miami child psychologist and expert in child sex abuse, as a consultant. He interviewed Hernandez and Lopez and concluded they were telling the truth.

Graphic Description

Then he and the producers returned to Guatemala with Lopez and spoke to three more young men who were still living at Mi Casa. One of these was Leonel’s younger brother, Hugo. Miranda said that all three told of being molested and that they graphically described many forms of sex.

Miranda said he is sure the boys of Mi Casa are telling the truth.

Though “60 Minutes” did not broadcast its story until Feb. 19, Guatemalan officials and American Friends of Children board members learned about the allegations in November after “60 Minutes” correspondent Diane Sawyer and Miranda confronted Wetterer in Uniondale, N.Y., while he was visiting relatives.

Wetterer denied the story--"You’ll do nothing but destroy Mi Casa,” he said--and returned quickly home. He told friends, supporters and Guatemalan officials that the allegations were lies.

As for the three other young men interviewed by Miranda, Wetterer said they have written letters denying that they told Miranda they had been abused.

Written Denials

In these letters, which Wetterer gave to authorities and later showed to Newsday, the three wrote that they insisted to Miranda that the allegations were untrue but that he had tried to bully them into making the charges anyway. Two of the young men, who still live at Mi Casa, repeated that story in interviews arranged by Wetterer.

Miranda said, “I can see that it would be easy for them to recant because Mr. Wetterer was right there, on the scene, and he has this power over them. . . . I think that it would be enough for him to say, ‘Listen, this will be the end of Mi Casa.’ ”

In fact, said a young man still at Mi Casa, that is exactly the impression Wetterer has left. This young man said that Wetterer held a meeting and said he had been accused of “torturing” them; he implied that the house would be destroyed if he were required to leave.

Resisted Investigation

Board members of American Friends of Children initially were supportive of Wetterer, but when they tried to investigate, Wetterer resisted.

The board then hired its own psychologist, sex-abuse expert William Samek of Miami, and asked him to go to Guatemala. Wetterer agreed to leave the house to allow Samek to speak freely with the children.

But Samek said that on his first day at Mi Casa, after he and a social worker had talked briefly to only three boys, Wetterer stopped the investigation and, acting as the board’s president, fired him.

Pending a resolution, the board voted to put Wetterer on “administrative leave,” and cut off funding for Mi Casa.

Wetterer, however, refused to leave, and said he had enough money to operate without them.

Lately, there has been no contact between Wetterer and the board.

The lobby of Mi Casa, its van and even the newsletters Wetterer sends to America in his campaign for survival are adorned with the group’s logo.

But Wetterer said the group has “nothing whatsoever to do with running Mi Casa. . . . They don’t have any standing. There’s a Guatemalan corporation here that runs Mi Casa, Amigos des Los Ninos. I am the president.”


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