Federal Judge Sérgio Moro is a polarizing figure in his homeland, idolized by much of the population for running the anti-corruption crusade that took down some of Brazil’s richest men over the past three years, and simultaneously reviled by left-wingers for disgracing the country’s previous two presidents, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Internationally, however, Moro is by far Brazil’s most respected personality in recent memory. Last year, Fortune magazine ranked him 13th on its list of World’s Greatest Leaders, Time magazine included him on its 2016 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, and he was feted at Harvard University and The Wilson Center.
Although the epic Car Wash corruption probe — and the numerous other probes spawned by it — are now old news, the adulation continues; The New York Times recently labeled Moro “the face of the national reckoning for Brazil’s ruling class.” And on Monday, Moro gained another feather on his cap as University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins presented him with the Notre Dame Award at a São Paulo ceremony.
Moro, whose path to fame was paved in the southern city of Curitiba as he launched an investigation into a kickback scheme involving state oil company Petrobras and several large construction firms, said the country’s anti-corruption movement is now far bigger than one judge and one jurisdiction:
The Brazilian anti-corruption movement is getting bigger. It is spreading and it is becoming strong with the support of the press, the public opinion and Brazilian people. The age of our robber barons is ending, and the empire of the law is becoming a true possibility in Brazil. Democracy with integrity is the goal.
The Notre Dame Award was first presented in connection with the university’s sesquicentennial in 1992; recipients include President and Rosalynn Carter, Saint Mother Teresa and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume of Northern Ireland.
The award had been dormant since 2000, but Notre Dame decided to relaunch it as part of the university’s 175th anniversary celebration. Rev. Jenkins said honoring Moro struck him as an opportunity to champion the university’s core Catholic values, and to highlight the need for students and future leaders to embrace ethics and integrity.
“By addressing the pernicious problems of public corruption in a judicious but diligent way, you have made a marked difference in the lives of all Brazilians and in quenching humankind’s universal thirst for justice,” said Rev. Jenkins during the award presentation.
In a press conference after the presentation, Moro thanked Notre Dame, saying the international support is a boon to judges, prosecutors, police and the Brazilian people in general working toward democracy and justice.
“Sometimes when you are outside you maybe can see things with more clarity … about what we’re trying to do here,” he said.
Moro’s life and career
Moro, 45, was raised in Maringá, in the southern state of Paraná. He earned a bachelor’s of law degree from Maringá State University and a doctorate from the Federal University of Paraná before coming to Harvard Law School in 1998 through an exchange program.
Appointed to his current position in 1996, Moro participated in the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in 2007, visiting U.S. agencies and institutions responsible for preventing and combating money laundering.
Modeling his approach on Italy’s “Clean Hands” corruption investigation that toppled scores of politicians in the 1990s, using tactics such as plea bargains and pre-trial detentions to build evidence, Moro has sent oil and construction executives and a former speaker of the house to prison. He recently sentenced the former president Lula da Silva — another polarizing character — to 10 years in prison on corruption and money-laundering charges related to expenses at his beachfront property. Da Silva is out on appeal and has strenuously questioned Moro’s tactics and credibility.
Moro maintains his goal is to show that no one in Brazil is above the law. Quoting U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt during the award presentation, Moro said, “The exposure and punishment of public corruption is an honor to a nation, not a disgrace. The shame lies in toleration, not in correction.”
Photos by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame Office of Public Affairs and Communications