ROME – Peruvian investigative journalist Paola Ugaz, currently embattled in a criminal defamation case triggered by a complaint from an archbishop, now is being threatened with another defamation charge by representatives of two Catholic schools who say her reporting on the institutions is false.
On March 25 Ugaz published an article in Peruvian paper La Republica asserting a former head of the prestigious San Pedro Catholic boys’ school in Lima was not only guilty of physical abuse in the lay community to which he belonged, but he also failed to act when concerns about possibly inappropriate conduct at the school were raised.
Alfredo Draxl García Rossell, who formerly led San Pedro, was recently asked to step down as director of the Liceo Naval School following accusations from journalist José Enrique Escardó that Draxl had abused him physically and psychologically while both were members of the same religious community in 1987.
Both Draxl and Escardó are ex-members of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), a controversial Catholic organization that originated in Peru and whose founder, layman Luis Fernando Figari, has been accused of physical, psychological and sexual abuses and was prohibited by the Vatican in 2017 of having further contact with members of the group. Escardó left the SCV nearly 20 years ago, while Draxl left in 2018.
In her article, Ugaz noted that shortly after he left, Escardó published an article in Gente magazine saying that while he was in community, Draxl would force him to endure various abuses, one of which was to put a Swiss army knife to his neck and tell him to push against it. If he refused, he said Draxl would insist, yelling, “Push, faggot!” and then make him walk on his knees and kiss the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary to ask for forgiveness.
When asked about the incident before a commission investigating institutional cases of abuse in Peru, Draxl said it was part of a game they played in which both men held knives and only lasted seconds. He called it a “stupid” mistake, but said he never intended to do violence.
Before leaving the Liceo Naval school, Draxl was director of San Pedro from 1997-2015. Both San Pedro and the girls school associated with it, Villa Caritas, are projects of the SCV and its women’s branch, the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR).
Ugaz reports that following Escardó’s accusations, there was no investigation by the Ministry for Education. When a former student came forward in 2014 insisting that he had been inappropriately touched by a priest in charge of preparing him for First Communion, she said Draxl dismissed both the complaint and parents’ concerns, telling them, “He’s an abortionist and everything is a lie.”
In her article, Ugaz also quotes statements from parents who sent their children to San Pedro. In one, a mother who used to lead prayer groups said that when her son was in first grade, he was instructed to see a psychologist and given medication. If she refused, the mother said, her son would not have been allowed to return to the school.
The mother said children were also told Halloween is a celebration of the devil, homosexual individuals are sinners and Santa Claus did not exist, all without permission of the parents.
The mother said she cried for three days after representatives in charge of marriage and family at both San Pedro and Villa Caritas reprimanded her. She said at one point, she was also asked to see a psychologist and take medication.
After her initial article, titled “School of Terror,” Ugaz published another in the same paper detailing other accusations against Draxl.
Ugaz, who co-authored the 2015 bombshell book Half Monks, Half Soldiers with fellow journalist Pedro Salinas detailing years of sexual, psychological and physical abuse, is facing legal criminal charges of aggravated defamation from Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru that was launched in 2018.
Yesterday Salinas was found guilty and sentenced to a 1-year suspended jail sentence and a fine of around $24,000.
Following her recent articles on Draxl, the San Pedro and Villa Caritas schools sent Ugaz a notarized letter asking her to retract her reports, which they said were false. They also sent notarized letters to the editors of La Republica and the mother interviewed for the March 25 article.
In comments to Crux, Carolina Contreras, a communications representative for the schools, said their legal actions have nothing to do with the SCV, but came in response to “lies and misrepresentations” depicting the schools as institutions “where abuse is normalized.”
She insisted the school never forced students or parents to take medication or fostered a regime of fear and rigid obedience.
In a letter sent to parents responding to Ugaz’s reports, the directors of Villa Caritas, Ximena Bisso, a member of the MCR, and San Pedro, Patricia Espinosa, said it’s normal to have a psychological team on campus as part of personalized development for children, but they have never medicated children without parents’ consent or recommended that parents see a psychologist.
The letter defends Draxl as “an excellent professional and person” who never received any accusations of abuse or mistreatment during his time at San Pedro. The only complaints, they said, are media articles “written by a journalist about a personal experience and acts that happened over 30 years ago,” and for which Draxl has apologized.
They also sent out a video last week explaining why they took legal action, saying that Ugaz’s reports “distort the truth.”
In comments to Crux, Ugaz said that since Eguren Anselmi launched his legal case against her, she’s received some 10-11 notarized letters from entities related to the SCV asking her to retract reports on grounds of defamation.
In Peru, once three notarized letters have been sent, it’s possible to raise criminal charges. Having already received one letter from the San Pedro school, she said she expects that she might soon be fighting another criminal battle.
She said she is undergoing “a legal offensive” from the SCV for publishing “everything that the Sodalicio doesn’t want you to know.”
“They are trying to harass us and intimidate us and put an end to the investigations,” she said, calling the SCV an “authoritarian organization” where “democracy does not exist.”
“I am not going to retract anything,” Ugaz said, explaining that she has interviewed several members of the SCV who work at the school, including family members of representatives of the schools who appear in the video they published, and who have been active in the school for more than 10 years.
“They suffered physical and psychological violence at San Pedro,” she said, adding that in her view, “this shows that the problem is more serious than we think…how can family members who appear in the video not have been able to know that there are victims in their own family and not done anything about it?”
“My only response to this wave of judicial intimidation,” she said, “is to do more journalism.”
After the video from the schools was circulated last week, Chilean clerical abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who released his own video in support of Ugaz and Salinas on the complaints by Eguren Anselmi, tweeted that the SCV “is not content with the unjust complaint” by the archbishop.
“They are starting a campaign against any person who denounces for abuse, the poor management of money, etc.,” he said, asking, “Where is justice?”
In a statement provided to Crux, Daniel Caledron, communications representative for the SCV, said his community has nothing to do with the legal actions taken by the schools, which were taken “exclusively by authorities of the schools.”
“It is false that the Sodalicio is conducting a campaign of intimidation,” he said, adding that the group “has never initiated any legal action.”