ROME – On Wednesday the Peruvian bishops’ conference came out against one of their own after an archbishop won a criminal defamation case against journalist Pedro Salinas, known for revealing various scandals inside a prominent Catholic movement operating in the country.

On April 9, Salinas was sentenced to a 1-year suspended prison term and a $24,000 fine after Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, in northwestern Peru, launched a criminal case of aggravated defamation against the journalist last year.

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After the sentencing, the leadership of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference and the new Archbishop of Lima, Carlos Gustavo Castilla Mattasoglio, issued a statement April 10 backing Salinas and indicating that Pope Francis is also supportive of his efforts to uncover abuse.

In their statement, the bishops’ conference said Salinas “sought to clarify the truth” about scandals happening within the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), and that in the wake of his guilty verdict, Francis had asked them “to prioritize the compensation and attention to the victims of every type of abuse, condemning any form of complicity.”

Francis, they said, “has praised and thanked the work of the journalists who, through their investigations, contribute to denouncing the abuses, punishing the perpetrators and assisting the victims.”

“The pope underlines that the Church needs their help in this difficult task of fighting against evil,” and that the climate of mercy and conversion in Lent “moves everyone to the maximum transparency so that the crimes are recognized, and a just reparation is possible,” they said.

The bishops reiterated their solidarity and closeness to the victims of the SCV, their families and their advocates.

Salinas and investigative journalist Paola Ugaz, also facing criminal defamation charges by Eguren Anselmi, co-authored a 2015 bombshell book titled Half Monks, Half Soldiers, detailing years of sexual, psychological and physical abuse inside the SCV. The controversial order originated in Peru and its founder, layman Luis Fernando Figari, was accused of physical, psychological and sexual abuses and in 2017 was prohibited by the Vatican of having further contact with members of the group.

Eguren Anselmi launched a criminal complaint against Salinas in 2018 related to a series of articles and interviews he published earlier that year comparing Eguren Anselmi to Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who resigned from his diocese after facing accusations that he helped cover up the abuse of his longtime friend and Chile’s most notorious abuser, ex-Father Fernando Karadima.

Salinas had also charged that Eguren Anselmi, who is a member of the SCV, was part of an alleged land trafficking scandal in Piura, which the archbishop has denied.

Salinas has announced his decision to launch an appeal once his full sentence is read in a coming April 22 hearing.

In an April 10 response to the statement, the Archdiocese of Piura issued a communique responding to the statement put out by the bishops’ conference saying Eguren Anselmi has decided that “before making any pronouncement the prudent decision in these circumstances is to wait to know the full text of the sentence.”

Eguren Anselmi has consistently denied that his charges are in response to Salinas and Ugaz’s book, and that the cases have nothing to do with the SCV. He has also insisted that he will give money from the cases to charity.

Spanish media has been abuzz with the case in recent days following Salinas’s April 9 sentencing, with many questioning how freedom of the press fits into the case, and whether defamation cases ought to be tried in criminal court.

Many have taken to social media to show their support for Salinas and Ugaz, who is still embroiled in her legal battle with Eguren Anselmi, including British Ambassador to Peru Kate Harrison, who in an April 9 tweet said “I wish to express all of my solidarity with the Peruvian journalists #PedroSalinas @chapatucombi and #PaolaUgaz @larryportera” and using the hashtag “#DefendMediaFreedom.”

Alberto de Belaunde, a congressman in Peru’s leftist “Bancada Liberal” party and head of a government commission investigating institutional cases of abuse, including the SCV, sent several tweets about the case.

In an April 9 tweet, he said Salinas’s condemnation sends “a very negative” message to victims, adding that “we must promote breaking the silence, not punishing those who are trying to help break it.”

In a separate tweet sent April 10, de Belaunde announced that his party that day presented a bill to decriminalize crimes against honor, making it so that they would be tried in civil courts and “the threat of prison would no longer continue to affect the work of the press.”

His tweet was accompanied by a meme reading, “Journalism should not lead to prison.”

In his own tweet, Salinas called the statement from the bishops “historical,” saying he has never seen “an open rupture in the body of the Peruvian episcopate.”

“They left (Eguren Anselmi) more alone than one,” he said, adding that the fact the bishops make their rebuke public shows that the case “goes against the current pope’s guidelines.”