ROME – As the Vatican’s top investigators are in Peru making inquiries into a troubled lay order, the Archdiocese of Lima has announced the appointment of a temporary administrator of one of the group’s two female branches.

Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu are currently in Lima, Peru, conducting an investigation into the Sodalitium Christinae Vitae (SCV), a society of apostolic life founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in the 1970s.

Scandals involving the SCV exploded in 2015, when Peruvian journalists Pedro Salinas and Paola Ugaz published their book Half Monks, Half Soldiers detailing years of alleged sexual, physical and psychological abuse by members of the SCV.

Figari himself was accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse within the community, including the sexual abuse of minors, and 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.

In addition to the SCV, Figari is also the founder of two other Peruvian lay communities: the women’s Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), known in Spanish as the Fraternidad Mariana de la Reconciliación (FMR), and the Siervas del Plan de Dios, or Servants of the Plan of God (SPD), a group of lay consecrated women founded in Peru by Figari in 1998.

While abuses within the SCV are more widely known, between 2016 and July 2021 nearly 30 former members of the Siervas, some of whom left as recently as 2020, made complaints to ecclesial authorities in Peru, in Chile, and in the Vatican.

In those complaints, former members recounted a toxic and militant internal culture in which authority was unquestioned and members were routinely criticized, belittled, publicly humiliated, and pushed to both physical and mental extremes for the sake of being “tough enough” to meet the challenges of responding to God’s call.

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In 2018, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, then-Archbishop of Lima, launched a canonical investigation into the Siervas after receiving numerous complaints from former members. That visitation ended abruptly without concluding its work shortly after Cipriani stepped down and the current Archbishop of Lima, Carlos Castillo, came to office in March 2019.

Sisters in the order were told at the time that the reason the original canonical visitation was interrupted was the change in ecclesial authority in Lima, however, former members have said the real reason was a lack of transparency from members and authorities of the Siervas during the interviews.

At the time, no further action was taken. Amid an avalanche of new complaints and increased pressure, Castillo in December 2021 ordered that a second canonical visitation be made into the Siervas, which concluded last year.

In addition, Castillo has also an investigation into the various complaints made by the former members of the Siervas. The archdiocese has interviewed several former members hailing from various countries around the world as part of the probe and is gathering their testimonies.

Camila Bustamante, a Chilean journalist who was once a candidate to join the Siervas and who last year published a book titled Siervas detailing the alleged abuses that members suffered, in a recent social media post acknowledged the steps that have been taken, and called for members of the group to be interviewed as part of the Vatican’s probe into the SCV.

Bustamante also revealed that as part of the Lima archdiocese’s inquiries into the Siervas, Castillo has named a Comisario, or Commissioner, who will serve as a temporary administrator of the order, meaning current leadership of the Siervas have no decision-making or governance powers.

In a letter sent to those who lodged complaints, dated July 18, days before Scicluna and Bertomeu’s arrival to investigate the SCV, Castillo said Father Iñazio Azcoaga Lasheras will serve as the Commissioner, and that he made the decision to appoint one “due to the serious accusations made against the Servants of the Plan of God” and given his task as bishop “to safeguard the rights of the alleged victims.”

Castillo also announced the establishment of a commission composed of experts in both theology and canonical and civil law in order to advise “of the development of the legal procedural and theological solution or solutions” to the alleged abuse.

He also apologized for an apparent delay in responding to their complaints, saying, “the objective magnitude and complexity of the cases, and of the case as a whole, have required carrying out different steps to achieve solutions in the most solid way possible.”

It’s seen as unlikely that Scicluna and Bertomeu will speak with members and former members of the Siervas during their time in Peru, as their inquiry is focusing on the SCV. Observers and former members believe that the outcome of the SCV case, however, may serve as a precedent for the fate of the other communities established by Figari.


Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen