ROME – As Peruvian journalist Paola Ugaz faces ongoing legal threats over her reporting on a controversial Catholic lay group, both sexual abuse survivors and members of the hierarchy have come to her defense, arguing that the onslaught of legal action amounts to “harassment” in a bid to stop her investigations.

Last year, Ugaz received five criminal citations for aggravated defamation, more than any other journalist in Peru in 2019. On Dec. 30, Ugaz got two separate legal notices in the mail summoning her to hearings, one on Jan. 17, and one on March 22.

“When the whole world was preparing to celebrate the new year, I had to start working with my defense lawyer to see how to face this systematic harassment of me,” Ugaz told Crux, attributing this “persecution” to the group she has been reporting on.

Ugaz first became a household name in Peru in 2015 when she co-authored the book Half Monks, Half Soldiers with colleague Pedro Salinas, detailing years of sexual, psychological and physical abuse inside the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV). She has continued to investigate the group and is now set to publish a new book detailing alleged financial misconduct.

The SCV is one of the best-known and most contested religious groups in Latin America. It was established in Peru in the 1970s by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari who is accused of physical, psychological and sexual abuses and was prohibited by the Vatican in 2017 from having further contact with members of the group. Several other members of the community have also been accused of abusing minors.

Ugaz’s legal woes first began in 2018 when Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru launched charges of criminal defamation against both her and Salinas, charging Ugaz specifically for a series of tweets about him and for her role in a 2016 Al Jazeera documentary called “The Sodalitium Scandal,” which details the purchase of a large patch of land in Piura by the San Juan Bautista Civil Association, which has ties to the SCV, and involvement with a criminal group in the process.

(In the Peruvian system, it doesn’t require a District Attorney to file a criminal complaint for certain offenses, including defamation; one can be registered by a private citizen.)

Though Eguren Anselmi eventually retracted his complaints against Ugaz and Salinas after facing a wave of civil and ecclesial backlash, Ugaz has continued to receive legal notices from individuals linked to the SCV, most of whom accuse her of defamation over the documentary.

The latest of these has come from Carlos Alberto Gómez de la Torre Pretell, who works with a real estate company attached to the SCV. Gómez is the same figure who charged Ugaz last May in a separate complaint for false testimony in a criminal procedure against a colleague of Ugaz. As a result of the allegations against her, Ugaz risks fines as high as $600,000 and three years in prison.

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In addition to the criminal charges she faces, Ugaz has also previously complained that her email and telephone communications were hacked, and that she has been consistently harassed on social media, with some critics poking fun at her physical appearance.

However, amid the wave of charges against Ugaz, several organizations have come to her defense, arguing that Peruvian criminal law is being weaponized in a bid to silence her investigations.

On Jan. 3, the Inter-American Press Society (SIP) voiced concern for Ugaz’s many legal woes, saying they “deplore the use of judicial complaints to intimidate and discourage journalists,” and would continue to push for the “decriminalization” of crimes against honor in Peru, meaning these cases would be tried in civil, rather than criminal courts.

In the statement, Christopher Barnes, president of SIP, and Roberto Rock, president of the Freedom of Press and Information Commission, condemned the “systematic legal harassment” of journalists in Peru through repeated legal intimidation.

Barnes insisted that citizens are free to make a complaint if they feel aggrieved, but he also urged judges to recall a 2014 measure from the Peruvian Supreme Court asking that justices “fully assess claims against journalists before admitting them, as they are typically filed to stop or censor journalistic investigations, many of them on corruption.”

Insisting that the number of complaints against Ugaz is proof that her accusers are trying to censor her, Rock added that “the criminalization of crimes against honor in Peru has an intimidating effect which impacts the exercise of free journalism.”

Ugaz’s plight has gone international, with American groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and survivor advocacy groups rising to her defense.

RELATED: Peruvian law being ‘weaponized’ against journalists, watchdog group says

On Jan. 8 the American survivor advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse issued a statement saying they were concerned about “the judicial harassment” of Ugaz, “who with professionalism has conducted an investigation in recent years to find and disseminate the truth” about complaints regarding the SCV.

Ugaz’s work “has been key for victims of the group,” they said, stressing that while every person has a legitimate right to defend their honor, “it is not lawful for anyone to abuse said right.”

“In the abuse case of legal actions against Paola Ugaz, it is clear that what is intended is not to seek justice, but to silence it,” the organization said, urging Peruvian authorities to ensure Ugaz of a fair trial and to avoid instrumentalizing the law “for personal and baseless revenge.”

Ecclesial authorities in Peru have also come to Ugaz’s defense. In a television interview with Peruvian station Radio de Programas de Peru (RPP) in December, Archbishop Carlos Castillo of Lima spoke of Ugaz’s case, saying that “instead of clarifying the truths” in abuse cases, her accusers “resort to wanting to cover the truth.”

If Ugaz’s accusers were truly Christian, “they would have to give that up,” Castillo said, adding that “if we turn to trickery, power, social or economic relationships or influence to hide the terrible things we do, then we are not true Christians and we do not give a witness of service, which is what Jesus came to do.”

In an open letter responding to Castillo that was posted to Twitter, Gomez de la Torre defended himself, saying: “it is false that Mrs. Ugaz is being accused by Christians allied to groups dedicated to the destruction of people.”

According to Gomez de la Torre, in January 2012, while serving as an attorney for the Association of Saint John the Baptist, he purchased some 300 hectares of land to build a cemetery, however, a month later people started showing up who claimed to have possession rights of the same property, accusing him of usurpation and the falsification of documents.

At the same time, he said, a civil construction company “invaded” some 87 hectares of the land, insisting they had rights of possession and demanding to be paid in order to use the land. To avoid the lengthy and costly process of eviction and of halting construction plans for the cemetery, Gomez de la Torre said he opted to repurchase the land instead.

Gomez said police in Lima determined in September 2014 that the construction company claiming rights to the land he purchased was in fact the Gran Cruz criminal organization.

He also took issue with the witnesses chosen for the documentary, questioning their credibility, and accused Castillo of making a false judgement on his intentions. He asked Castillo for a brief meeting in order to explain his reasons for pursuing legal action against Ugaz.

Gomez de la Torre’s main stated reason for pursuing legal action against Ugaz is that he claims she was a producer in the documentary.

Despite saying in a past interview that she had been the producer of the program, Ugaz has since insisted that this was a mistake and that she was not the producer but advised and only appeared in a small snippet of the film.

According to a Jan. 23 letter from Al Jazeera, which Crux has acquired, the company said Ugaz was asked by the director of the documentary, Seamus Mirodan, to provide information on the SCV and to be interviewed. The letter insists that Ugaz “did not form part of the production of the program” and “nor has she had any interference on the editorial aspects.”

Individual survivors and colleagues have also come to Ugaz’s defense as the number of notarized letters she receives continues to increase.

In a Jan. 1 tweet, Chilean clerical abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz referenced the legal actions taken against Ugaz by members and affiliates of the SCV, saying “It’s impressive how members and sympathizers of the Sodalicio in Peru are acting.”

“They are harassing @larryportera,” he said, using her Twitter handle, “who has investigated cases of abuse, money and the cover-up of bishop Eguren and others. They continue abusing their power! This must be stopped! We support Pao Ugaz!”

Likewise, Salinas also sent a Jan. 1 tweet referring to legal actions taken against Ugaz, saying the charges will continue until “they dissolve,” meaning the SCV.

In her comments to Crux, Ugaz thanked ECA for their support, which she said, “comes at the right time and gives me great courage to move forward.”

She also voiced gratitude to Castillo and to the organizations that have supported her, including the Inter-American Press Association, the National Association for Journalists, the Institute of Press and Society, the Peruvian Press Council and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ugaz said she has also received backing from the Vatican’s ambassador to Peru, Archbishop Nicola Girasoli. Both Girasoli and Castillo “at all times have been aware of this persecutory wave against me,” she said, and voiced gratitude for their solidarity and appreciation for her work.

Ugaz also voiced appreciation for Pope Francis and for his work “to end clerical pedophilia and his solidarity with victims worldwide.”

“My response to the complaints of the Sodalicio will always be the same: more and better journalism,” she said.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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