[This story has been updated.]
ROME – On Monday night Peruvian journalist Pedro Salinas, who had been accused by an archbishop with the crime of aggravated defamation related to an ongoing abuse scandal, was found guilty and slapped with a hefty fee and one-year suspended prison sentence.
Judge Judith Cueva Calle of the First Unipersonal Criminal Court in Piura, Peru, ruled April 8 that Salinas was guilty of aggravated defamation of Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi, who runs the Piura archdiocese, and ordered him to pay roughly $24,000 in addition to his suspended jail sentence.
Carlos Rivera Paz, Salinas’ lawyer, said they’re planning to appeal the decision during an April 22 hearing when the full sentence is read.
“We are going to reject the arguments, and we hope that the appeals court has a little more sense and makes a better evaluation of the evidence,” he said.
Salinas and fellow journalist Paola Ugaz, also being sued by Eguren Anselmi, co-authored the 2015 bombshell book Half Monks, Half Soldiers, detailing years of sexual, psychological and physical abuse inside 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.
The complaint against Salinas was made in relation to the publication of a series of articles and interviews he published in early 2018 comparing Eguren Anselmi to Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who resigned from his post in the diocese of Osorno 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.
Ugaz was charged for her role in a documentary series by Al-Jazeera she helped to produce which also named Eguren Anselmi as part of the land trafficking scandal. She’s also being sued for her coverage of Salinas’s case and for a series of tweets that she sent ahead of Pope Francis’s January 2018 visit to Peru in which she described Eguren Anselmi’s history with the SCV, saying he knew of the founder’s abuses and did nothing.
Although Salinas and Ugaz’s alleged defamation happened in Lima, the cases are being tried in Piura. Ugaz is currently embroiled in a legal battle to have her case transferred to Lima, and is awaiting an appeal after her first request was denied.
In comments to Crux following Salinas’ sentancing, Eguren Anselmi said he “never intended to go to this extreme,” but insisted that the “had no other choice because despite the opportunities I have the journalist, he never wanted to rectify the claims he made against me.”
“When offered the opportunity to reconcile, Salinas said that there was nothing to reconcile,” he said, adding, “believe me when I say that I’m sorry to have reached this instance.”
Eguren Anselmi insisted that he has never claimed the investigation into the abuses perpetrated in the SCV is false and that there are victims. “There are victims and there are those responsible,” he said, “but you cannot make a general complaint or accusation. It cannot be said that all members of the Sodalicio were abusers.”
He insisted that his lawsuits against Salinas and Ugaz were a personal initiative and had nothing to do with their joint investigation of the SCV.
In a letter to Crux in February, he that he had also requested the three-year prison sentences be tossed for each, and that money from the fines would be given to a center for needy and disabled persons run by the order Saint John of God.
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In comments to the press following his sentencing, Salinas called the verdict “a scandal, a farce and an open threat to freedom of expression.”
“It feels like a nefarious precedent, because it is clear that, after me, Paola will follow,” as well as any who have written openly about the SCV, he said, calling the entire legal case an act of “revenge” on the part of the SCV for the book he and Ugaz published.
“We are seeing that they use the judicial power of Piura to try to frighten journalists, but they will not intimidate us, frighten us or silence us,” he said.
Ugaz took to Twitter after the sentence, saying the only message she and Salinas wanted to send after “the Sodalicio executed their judicial revenge” was to insist that she and Salinas “will continue doing more and better journalism.”
On Sunday Juan Carlos Cruz, Jose Andres Murillo and James Hamilton – all victims of Karadima in Chile who recently won a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Santiago – issued a video supporting Salinas and Ugaz together with lawyers and other representatives working with victims of clerical abuse.
In the video, Cruz appeals to Eguren Anselmi to drop the charges, arguing the prosecutions are “not in the spirit of what the pope wants, the spirit we are looking for, so that the truth comes out and there is transparency.”
He said the SCV through Eguren Anselmi is promoting “a campaign of intimidation” against all victims of the group, and that he and Karadima’s other victims wanted to send “all our solidarity to our friends in Peru, to all who have been violated by the Sodalicio, whether sexually, psychologically or with the abuse of power.”
Salinas and Ugaz’s case also has been flagged by Amnesty International. On Feb. 28, the group issued a statement saying that to use criminal defamation laws to prevent legitimate criticism contradicts the right to freedom of expression and arguing that defamation lawsuits ought to be prosecuted in civil rather than criminal courts.