ROME – Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru, announced Wednesday he has withdrawn his criminal complaint of aggravated defamation against journalist Pedro Salinas, even though Salinas has already been convicted.
In an April 24 communique from the Archdiocese of Piura, Eguren Anselmi said he submitted his request to withdraw his complaint against Salinas at the First Unipersonal Criminal Court in Piura earlier that morning.
Salinas, who was charged by Eguren Anselmi with aggravated defamation last summer, was found guilty by Judge Judith Cueva Calle April 8 and sentenced to a one-year suspended jail term and ordered to pay a fine of roughly $24,000.
According to Eguren Anselmi’s lawyer, Percy Garcia Cavero, the sentence no longer applies since the legal basis for it has been withdrawn.
In comments to Crux, Garcia Cavero said that under Peruvian law, the party who launches the complaint, at least in defamation cases, can retract that complaint at any point “without giving a juridical explanation.”
It is unclear whether Eguren Anselmi will also be withdrawing a similar complaint against journalist Paola Ugaz, whom he also charged with defamation.
When Salinas’s sentence was announced, it immediately provoked backlash throughout the Peruvian Church and in the international media, with many journalist watchdog groups questioning its implications for freedom of the press and whether defamation cases ought to be charged in criminal court.
Meanwhile, a statement from the Peruvian bishops also came to Salinas’s defense.
“The Holy Father has praised and thanked the world of journalists who, through their investigations, contribute to denouncing abuses, punishing the perpetrators and assisting victims. The pope underlined that the Church needs their help in the difficult task of fighting against this evil,” the bishops said.
In his Wednesday statement, Eguren Anselmi said Salinas’s sentence has caused “a series of unjustified reactions, including inside of the Church, which I consider to have an impact on a greater good, which is the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ.”
“As a bishop, my first responsibility is to watch over the portion of the People of God entrusted to me,” he said, explaining that this is the reason he decided “without prejudice to the outcome of the judicial process” to renounce his right “to defend my reputation and my good name.”
Eguren Anselmi insisted that his intention in launching the complaint was to defend his good name and ensure that making “false and offensive accusations without foundation” is avoided.
“I trust that this decision will be valued in its just dimension and can contribute to the unity of Peruvians and of our Church, so urgent in the current moments that Peru is living,” he said.
Salinas and Ugaz co-authored the bombshell book Half Monks, Half Soldiers, with Salinas in 2015, 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.
Earlier on Wednesday Salinas hit back against the judge who issued his guilty verdict in the criminal defamation case launched by the archbishop, saying her grounds for the sentence were biased and based solely on arguments of the prosecution.
Following the full reading of Salinas’s sentence April 22, during which Cueva Calle said Salinas’s publications were an attack on Eguren Anselmi’s honor and done with “malicious intent,” the journalist’s lawyer, Carlos Rivera Paz, sent a series of tweets insisting that the arguments were weak, distorted and lacked any reference to evidence provided by the defense.
During Monday’s reading of the full sentence, Cueva Calle called Salinas “a person who has a proven repulsion against the Catholic Church and is part of an organization directed to affect” the Church as an institution.
She also complained about the “sarcasm” and “burlesque” tone of Salinas’s articles, saying he had published “a series of offensive defamatory imputations with a spirit of affecting (Eguren Anselmi’s) honor and to get his biggest desire to dissolve the Sodalicio.”
In his tweets, which included images of the text of the sentence, Rivera Paz said there was “a very deficient foundation” to Cueva Calle’s ruling and that “the arguments in defense of Salinas do NOT exist” in the text, as is normally the case during the full reading of the sentence.
Rivera Paz also argued that the text “distorts the meaning of jurisprudence” and “firmly follows the plaintiff’s arguments,” implying that Cueva Calle only took Eguren Anselmi’s arguments into consideration and disregarded the evidence and witnesses provided by the defense team.
On the charge related to his comparison of Eguren Anselmi with Barros, Salinas said neither he nor his publications indicated that Eguren Anselmi had covered up sexual abuse as had been argued during the trial.
Extending the metaphor, which he said fits Eguren Anselmi “like a glove,” Salinas explained that Eguren Anselmi, like Barros, was close to the leader of his community; that he participated in “dynamics of psychological bullying” in the group; that he helped Figari create an authoritarian system of abuse of power; and that he wanted to “clean his face” with the pope’s visit to Peru in 2018.
To back up these assertions, the defense team provided two ex-members of the SCV who gave their testimonies, however, Salinas said these testimonies were ignored and no mention was made of them in the text of his sentence.
Salinas also argued that characterizations he used in his articles to describe known pedophiles – such as the term “lucky predator” used in reference to ex-Sodalit Virgilio Levaggi, who has been found guilty by the SCV of sexual abuse of minors – were misinterpreted by Cueva Calle and the prosecution team, who argued that the term had been used in reference to Eguren Anselmi.
Levaggi, he said, was never expelled from the SCV, but was “protected and covered for by the Sodalit dome” in the 1980s. At the time, this dome included Eguren Anselmi, he said, adding, “there are things that Eguren must really answer for just like the Sodalicio itself.”
“It is a gross lie to claim that I have defamed the Sodalit Jose Antonio Eguren,” he said, adding that his condemnation “criminalizes opinions and eludes the understanding of a sectarian phenomenon which has damaged so many people.”