ROME – Peruvian journalist Paola Ugaz has won a second appeal to transfer a legal defamation case related to her reporting on sex abuse scandals from the Peruvian city of Piura to Lima, after the Archbishop of Piura filed charges against her last year.

Ugaz’s victory comes days after her colleague Pedro Salinas, who was also facing criminal aggravated defamation charges by Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi, lost his legal battle and was sentenced to a 1-year suspended prison term and a fine of close to $24,000. Like Ugaz, Salinas had sought to transfer his case from Piura to Lima, but his request and subsequent appeals were rejected.

Both argued it would be impossible to get a fair trial in the same city where the complaining archbishop serves, and where the deck is arguably stacked in his favor.

Salinas and Ugaz co-authored the 2015 bombshell book Half Monks, Half Soldiers exposing years of sexual, psychological and physical abuse inside the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), a prominent Catholic lay group born in Peru whose founder, layman Luis Fernando Figari, was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and forbidden to contact members of the group.

Both Salinas and Ugaz in 2018 were served with criminal charges of aggravated defamation by Eguren Anselmi, who is a member of the SCV, for articles, interviews and tweets they had put out alleging that he had been aware of Figari’s abuses but did nothing; that he himself had perpetrated physical and psychological abuse; and that he was linked to a land trafficking scandal in Piura.

Eguren responded by bringing defamation charges. After Salinas’ conviction, however, the Peruvian bishops’ conference effectively disowned the case, praising Salinas and Ugaz for seeking “to clarify the truth” and saying Pope Francis had asked them “to prioritize the compensation and attention to the victims of every type of abuse, condemning any form of complicity,” rather than pursuing retribution against journalists.

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In an April 11 statement following the decision of the Second Chambers of the Court of Appeals of the Superior Court of Justice of Piura to transfer Ugaz’s case to Lima, the Archdiocese of Piura said Eguren Anselmi is “respectful of the judgements” and that the Lima courts will continue proceedings “to safeguard his honor and of his good name.”

In the statement, the archdiocese referred to speculation that Eguren Anselmi had an “omnipotent power” in Piura, particularly in the courts.

The ruling in Ugaz’s case “invalidates this falsehood, which was manifested arbitrarily again and again by both Mr. Salinas and Ms. Ugaz, creating a lot of misinformation in public opinion and a media pressure rarely seen before,” the statement read.

In a bid to ensure public opinion is not “misguided,” the archdiocese clarified that the decision to transfer Ugaz’s case to Lima “in no way affects the sentence imposed” on Salinas Monday, “which remains valid.”

In comments to Crux, Ugaz questioned why her case was allowed to be transferred, even on appeal, while Salinas’ was not, insisting that the SCV “is a system of abuse and authoritarianism where a free press doesn’t exist.”

“It’s because of this that Monsignor Eguren and members of the Sodalicio who direct companies in Piura, the only answer they have before questions of the media is a judicial slap,” she said, adding that “journalists should never be the news, but the stories we publish.”

Since she was charged by Eguren Anselmi last year, Ugaz has received an additional 10-11 other notarized letters from individuals or organizations affiliated with the SCV asking her to retract her publications, including two prominent schools in Lima.

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“In all this time, the State has been absent,” she said, noting that since concerns about directors of the schools were first raised in 2000, “neither the Public Prosecutor nor the Ministry of Education has done anything to protect those children who were in the schools of the Sodalicio.”

“There are dozens of Peruvians whose lives were ruined by the Sodalicio and who can never again be reintegrated into society because of the psychological damage they experienced inside,” she said, calling it “a public health problem.”

“But no one in the State moves a finger to attend to those victims. Seeing this void, the Sodalicio feels emboldened to silence their critics through legal complaints.”