ROME – One of the lawyers defending victims of a scandal-ridden Peruvian lay group has voiced confidence that the civil case he is leading against several of its members will move forward, and he believes the organization could soon be dissolved.
Speaking to Crux, José Ugaz, a named partner with the Benites, Vargas & Ugaz law firm in Peru, said they are “very interested in the dissolution of this institution, which has had a criminal vocation among the highest ranks of its leadership.”
“We also know that at the level of the church, this is being evaluated and it’s possible that the church will make a decision in the coming months,” he said.
The group in question is the Sodalitium Christinae Vitae (SCV), one of the largest and most prominent Catholic lay groups in Latin America. It was founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in the 1970s.
Figari, who is accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses, including of minors, was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and prohibited from having further contact with members of the group or making public statements on the matter. He is now living in exile.
Scandals involving Figari and other prominent members of the community erupted in 2015 when Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz (no relation to the attorney Ugaz) published the book Half Monks, Half Soldiers, offering victims’ firsthand accounts detailing decades of mistreatment and abuse.
Ever since, the leadership of the Peruvian Catholic Church, and the Vatican, have contemplated either the complete dissolution of the order, or its dissolution and refoundation in a different form, but have not yet reached a decision.
In his interview with Crux, José Ugaz said he believes the decision will be made soon, “because it’s a topic that has been in the Vatican for many years and the pope is quite interested.”
Discussions “are quite advanced,” he said, “So, it’s possible we could have a result in the short-term.”
Ugaz is representing a group of victims of the SCV, who have filed two separate legal complaints against Figari and other high-ranking members and former members.
The first complaint was made in October 2015, shortly after Half Monks, Half Soldiers was published, for sexual abuse of minors.
A second complaint was filed in May 2016 for physical, sexual, and psychological abuses, indoctrination or mental “kidnapping,” and illicit business practices.
In 2017, the first case was archived due to a statute of limitations, and on grounds that the legal deadline by which to complete the preliminary investigation had passed.
The second case continued to move forward, however, in August 2021, lawyers representing Figari and other top SCV members submitted a formal request to the Peruvian Judiciary to close the case, which had been sent to the Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime over the illicit business activities charge.
Figari’s lawyers argued that the case opened in 2015, rather than 2016, and that therefore the 36-month deadline to investigate this allegation, renewable for one term, had also passed.
However, the presiding judge at the time ruled against them on grounds that the investigation had not actually begun until after the complaint was filed, with several delays along the way, some of which were related to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a separate hearing, Eduardo Castañeda, the provincial prosecutor attached to the case, argued that the deadline for completing the investigation ought to start from December 2019, as that is the date when the case actually reached the prosecutor’s office.
An appeal hearing for the matter took place Nov. 17, 2021, and during this session, the presiding Superior Prosecutor Carlos Matamoros Curipaco made the unusual move of deviating from Castañeda’s position and instead sided with lawyers for the SCV.
Curipaco also barred victims from testifying at the hearing and refused to hear arguments from victims’ lawyers on why the case should be allowed to continue to the preparatory investigation, which is the next phase in the process.
Parties are now awaiting the decision of the First Criminal Appeals Chamber Specialized in Organized Crime, chaired by Judge Porfiria Condori, which will rule on the case having heard only from the SCV’s legal team, but not the survivors.
Regardless of the setbacks and the risk of the case being definitively closed – meaning neither Figari nor other culpable members of the SCV would ever be charged for their crimes – Ugaz said his team is “hopeful.”
“I think the prosecutor is going to say, yes there are elements, let’s proceed to the second stage, which is called the ‘preparatory investigation,’ which is already a kind of judicial process,” he said, saying his team was scrupulous in the reports and statements they provided.
If the case moves forward, there will be 8-16 months of investigation before the case would go to the next stage.
“It’s always possible” that the case will be closed, Ugaz said, “but I trust, due to the number of proofs we presented, which are quite strong, and the content on the part of the victims, I trust that it won’t be like this, and that it will proceed to the second stage.”
Ugaz and his team also represent Paola Ugaz, who after the publication of Half Monks, Half Soldiers and other investigative reports has faced an onslaught of legal complaints from individuals and organizations associated with the SCV.
“In Paola’s case, she’s been the victim of a defamation campaign; they say she belongs to a criminal organization, that she launders money, that she trafficked land. They are all absurd accusations that have absolutely no foundation and no possibility” of success, he said.
“I don’t think they are going to end well. It’s clear that it’s all a lie,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen