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Vatican’s Top Abuse Investigators to Probe Scandal-plagued Lay Group in Peru

ROME – Next week the Vatican’s top two investigators will arrive in Peru to conduct an in-depth inquiry into the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), a scandal-ridden lay group whose founder has been sanctioned for various abuses, including the sexual abuse of minors.

According to sources with knowledge of the visit, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu will begin their work on Tuesday, July 25, speaking with both victims and the leadership and top members of the SCV.

Scicluna is the Archbishop of Malta and also serves as adjunct secretary to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, where Bertomeu is also an official, and which, among other things, is tasked with handling allegations of clerical abuse. Scicluna also serves president of a board of review for abuse cases within the dicastery.

Among the primary motives for the investigation, according to sources, is the ongoing legal harassment of journalists who initially uncovered the SCV’s abuses by organizations associated with the group, as well as allegations of financial corruption, among other things.

Scicluna and Bertomeu will prepare a report that will be given to the pope, who will then decide on the next course of action, including the possibility of dissolving the organization – something that has long been advocated by various members of the Peruvian Church hierarchy.

The Vatican’s intervention in the SCV so far has been a long and bumpy road, featuring several rounds of temporary leadership and Vatican-appointed delegates for various aspects of internal reform, while victims have called these interventions largely useless, charging that nothing has changed as corrupt individuals within the group maintain their grip on power, including the purse strings.

A Society of Apostolic Life and the largest ecclesial lay movement in Peru, the SCV was founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in 1971.

Born in Lima in 1947, Figari is the founder of a men’s lay community, the SCV; a women’s lay community, the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR); a community of women religious, the Servants of the Plan of God; and an ecclesial movement, called the “Christian Life Movement,” all of which share the same spirituality.

A charismatic group with a knack for engaging youth, the SCV attracted a swath of vocations from people drawn to its emphasis on a life of strict asceticism, intellectual formation and spiritual combat, believing their call was to fight as elite soldiers in God’s army.

However, Figari stepped down as superior general of the SCV for alleged health reasons in 2010, though by then allegations of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse had already begun to surface in Peru.

A full investigation into the complaints against Figari was not opened until 2015, shortly after Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz published their blockbuster book Half Monks, Half Soldiers chronicling years of alleged sexual, physical and psychological abuse by members of the SCV.

Salinas himself is a former member of the SCV.

The Vatican’s intervention

The first formal complaint against Figari was submitted to the ecclesiastical tribunal in Lima in 2011, and by 2013, two years prior to Salinas and Ugaz’s book, the tribunal had received four different complaints, including allegations that he had sexually abuse minors.

However, no formal action was taken until after Salinas and Ugaz’s book was published in 2015, when an apostolic visitor was appointed to the SCV, and an ethics commission established to investigate and submit proposals regarding the allegations against Figari.

In 2016, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark was tapped as the Vatican delegate to oversee the SCV reform. He had been secretary of the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic life from August 2010 until October 2012, when the first complaints against Figari arrived in Rome.

By January 2017, the SCV published a report announcing that 66 persons could be considered victims of abuse or mistreatment at the hands of Figari and other members of the group, and it allocated more than $2.8 million in reparation funds.

That same month, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, often called the “dicastery for religious,” issued a decree forbidding Figari from any contact with the religious community and banning him from returning to Peru, where he was facing civil charges for abuse at the time, without permission from the superior general of the SCV.

Figari was also forbidden to make any public statements and he was forbidden from living in community with the SCV, though it was requested that one member of the group be tasked as an intermediary between the founder and the SCV.

After being sanctioned, Figari launched an appeal, which was rejected by the Vatican Jan. 31, 2018. He then launched a second appeal, which according to a Feb. 20 statement from the SCV, was struck down by the Vatican on Oct. 2, 2018.

In January 2018, less than a week before Pope Franci’s visit to Peru that year, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Religious tapped Colombian Bishop Noel Londoño of Jerico to serve as a “commissioner” for the group, essentially taking the reins and guiding the community as they sought to implement their reform, while Tobin was tasked with overseeing the group’s finances.

When the SCV held its fifth general assembly in Aparecida, Brazil in January 2019, Londoño voiced his conviction that his role was no longer needed, and that the SCV could move forward with its own leadership guiding the reform.

At the time, SCV survivors complained that Londoño had largely been absent, as he lived in another country and had rarely traveled to Peru. They charged that no real investigation or oversight was conducted and called the affair a farce.

Londoño in the 2019 assembly announced that a special Vatican-appointed delegate would be named to serve as a point of reference with the Vatican to assist the SCV government in continuing to implement changes.

In May of that year, Mexican Franciscan Father Guillermo Rodríguez was tapped as delegate ad nutum Sanctae Sedis, “at the behest of the Holy See,” to oversee the SCV and help implement reforms, and then-Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a Jesuit canonist who is now a cardinal and a close papal advisor, to revamp the group’s formation process.

In the more than four years that have elapsed since Rodríguez and Ghirlanda were appointed, the SCV has been re-writing its governing constitutions. However, many former members and survivors question the efficacy of the reform, arguing that the process has failed to yield real change.

In the meantime, both Salinas and Ugaz have continued to publish articles and books on the SCV, and Ugaz in particular, who is working on a new book detailing alleged financial crimes within the SCV, has faced an onslaught of defamation charges over her reporting from various organizations and associations with ties to the SCV.

Legal harassment

Three years after their bombshell book Half Monks, Half Soldiers was published, in July 2018, Archbishop José Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru, who is a member of the SCV, filed criminal defamation suits against both Salinas and Ugaz over subsequent investigative reports in which they named him as not only complicit in the SCV’s abuses, but also accused him of land trafficking in Piura.

(In the Peruvian system, private citizens can register a criminal complaint for defamation.)

A year later, shortly after winning his case against Salinas, which was tried in Piura, Eguren retracted his complaints against both Salinas and Ugaz amid an avalanche of public, media, and ecclesial criticism, including a critical letter from the Peruvian bishops in which they claimed to have the pope’s backing.

However, Ugaz – whose publication of her new book on financial misdeeds within the SCV, including by members who still hold prominent positions, has repeatedly been delayed by her legal woes – has continued to receive legal notices from individuals and associations with ties to the SCV, most of whom accuse her of defamation.

While she has won many of these cases, complaints continue to arrive, with several new ones being made this year.

Ugaz met Pope Francis at the Vatican in November 2022, saying at the time that she and the pope discussed her investigation into the SCV, as well as the latest developments in Latin America, Africa, and other places around the world.

During her meeting with the pope, Ugaz asked Pope Francis for a serious investigation into the SCV, with special regard to their finances and the legal harassment she and Salinas have faced.

Eguren himself, who has been accused by many SCV survivors and former members of coverup, has twice been summoned to the Vatican, once in 2018 while his lawsuits against Salinas and Ugaz were still active, and again in March 2022, a time in which Ugaz was publishing stories accusing him of land trafficking in Piura.

A Peruvian Parliamentary Investigatory Commission on the Sexual Abuse of Minors in Organizations published a lengthy report on the SCV earlier this year detailing, among other things, systematic abuse and coverup on the part of SCV members, including some who still hold positions of authority within the organization.

Salinas has also continued to investigate the SCV, and last year published a lengthy new book Sin Noticias de Dios (No News from God), chronicling his investigations into the group and offering new details, such as an abuse allegation against Figari, “patient zero,” dating to 1966, before he established the SCV.

He also reported that the first allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor ever made against Figari to the Lima tribunal in 2011 disappeared after being sent to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Religious, and that it was only after this complaint was sent again in 2016 that Figari was formally sanctioned in 2017.

Scicluna and Bertomeu

Scicluna and Bertomeu will reportedly remain in Peru for several weeks gathering information and evaluating the SCV’s reform process.

Sources close to the matter have told Crux that a special committee will be formed to evaluate various points on the dissolution of the community, and what that would involve.

Scicluna and Bertomeu are the same duo Pope Francis sent to Chile in 2018 in the aftermath of the media firestorm over allegations that Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno covered up the abuse of notorious pedophile Father Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexually abusing minors. Karadima was removed from the clerical state in 2018.

After their investigation in Chile, Scicluna and Bertomeu came back with a 2,600-page dossier which prompted the pope to apologize for mishandling the situation in Chile. After a meeting with Francis in Rome that year, every Chilean bishop offered their resignation.

The two then traveled to Mexico in March 2020 in an effort to help the local bishops address the clerical abuse crisis in the country. Prior to visiting Peru, Bertomeu in May was sent to Bolivia to review the handling of abuse cases in the country.

Having previously investigated the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, as well as Karadima’s high-profile case in Chile, Scicluna and Bertomeu are veterans of such reviews.

They are credited with the sentencing of thousands of abuser priests and have garnered a reputation as being extremely competent in their work.

It is unknown how long their investigation into the SCV will take, but it is believed they will remain at least through the beginning of next month.

Their visit will undoubtedly be a sign of hope for victims and survivors who for years have been calling for a more serious inquiry.

In 2018, one survivor and former member of the SCV in comments to Crux praised Scicluna and Berotmeu’s work in Chile, noting that Scicluna spent part of his time there in the hospital, and yet “in seven days he did a report that was [more than] 2,000 pages.”

This person argued that in the many years of intervention into the SCV, far less headway has been made, and they said a serious investigation, “like they did in Chile,” was needed.

Source : Cruxnow