ROME – On Monday a Peruvian archbishop, who belongs to a scandal-ridden lay group and who has long been investigated by Peruvian media, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican as civil land disputes continue in his archdiocese.

On the list of papal appointments for Monday, March 21, was a meeting with Archbishop José Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, Peru, who is a prominent member of the Sodalitium Christinae Vitae (SCV), founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in the 1970s.

Figari is accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses within the community, including against minors. He was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and prohibited from having further contact with members of the group, and he is currently living in exile.

The Vatican did not publish details about the pope’s meeting with Eguren Anselmi, which was private, and which marks the second one-on-one meeting the pope has had with him in less than four years.

Pope Francis last met Eguren Anselmi, who has presided over the Archdiocese of Piura since 2006, in September 2018, as the prelate was embroiled in a criminal defamation case against two journalists who revealed scandals within the SCV.

In 2015, Peruvian journalists Paola Ugaz and Pedro Salinas published the book Half Monks, Half Soldiers detailing years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by Figari.

Just three years later, in July 2018, Eguren Anselmi filed criminal defamation suits against both Salinas and Ugaz over subsequent investigative reports in which they named him as not only complicit in the SCV’s abuses, but also accused him of land trafficking in Piura.

(In the Peruvian system, private citizens can register a criminal complaint for defamation.)

Eguren Anselmi’s suits, which were met with a loud backlash, were believed to be at least part of the reason for his meeting with the pope in September 2018, although the Vatican never disclosed the nature of the encounter.

A year later, shortly after winning his case against Salinas, which was tried in Piura, Eguren Anselmi retracted his complaints against both Salinas and Ugaz amid an avalanche of public, media, and ecclesial criticism.

However, Ugaz – who is preparing to publish a book detailing alleged financial misdeeds within the SCV – has continued to receive legal notices from individuals with ties to the SCV, most of whom accuse her of defamation.

Among the items cited in Eguren Anselmi’s original complaint against Ugaz were her allegations of criminal activity in 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 the criminal group La Gran Cruz in the process.

For years, a legal battle has been unfolding in Piura between a group of farmers and a handful of companies either operated by or with ties to the SCV, including the San Juan Bautista, the Empresa Agrícola Santa Regina SAC, and the Inversiones San Jose.

In Peru and throughout much of Latin America, it is common for peasants and members of the poorer classes to put down roots on a piece of inexpensive land and live there undisturbed for decades, or even hundreds of years, while having no formal title to the land on which they live either due to a lack of money or legal support.

Often, companies who want to buy up the land will strike a deal with the titleholder and essentially run the inhabitants out of town through threats and at times violence carried out by criminal groups.

In the province of Piura, one of these communities is a group of farmers in the town of Catacaos who are battling both threats from criminal groups and legal suits by companies of the SCV who wish to buy up the land they occupy.

Speaking to Crux, Ugaz, who has been investigating the land disputes in Piura for years, said one of the leaders of the Catacaos community, Marcelino Ynga, is currently fighting a legal battle launched by organizations tied to the SCV in which he has been called a terrorist and accused of criminal intent.

Ugaz said additional legal complaints have been filed by the SCV-affiliated organizations against an additional 12-13 members of Ynga’s community, and there are around 20 in total in Piura.

Once the businesses acquire the land they are seeking, they allow other companies to use it for economic activities.

“So, with this land, that they kicked poor people out of, they are doing business,” Ugaz said.

She pointed to another incident documented in her book on SCV finances, which has yet to be published, in which a company with ties to the SCV purchased a cemetery plot in Piura. In the purchase, she said, the SCV-affiliated company wrote it off as a donation to the archdiocese of Piura but remained the legal managers of the property, thus securing the lower tax rate that comes with being a property of the Catholic Church, while reaping the profits.

Ugaz is due to publish a new report on the Piura cemetery in the next few days.

In all of these activities and more, “Jose Eguren has the leading role,” she said, and added, he “has a lot to say and a lot to tell the Vatican, the press, and the world.”

Eguren Anselmi did not respond to a Crux request for comment by the time of publication.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen